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Full text of "Consuming distractions : commodities, visual pleasure, and film theory"

CONSUMING DISTRACTIONS: 
COMMODITIES, VISUAL PLEASURE, AND FILM THEORY 



By 

TRACY COX 



A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL 

OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT 

OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF 

DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY 

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 

2000 



TABLE OF CONTENTS 
ABSTRACT iii 

CHAPTERS 

1 INTRODUCTION 1 

2 COMMODITY FETISHISM AND THE MATERIALS OF CULTURE 10 

Fascinating Fetishism 13 

Material Culture of the Nineteenth Century 25 

Notes 54 

3 TOWARD A "FETISH-FRIENDLY" FEMINISM 58 

The Frankfurt School and Theories of Mass Art 61 

The Surrealists and Photogenie 71 

Mise-en-scene Meets the New Woman 78 

Notes 94 

4 CONSUMING DISTRACTIONS IN PRIX DE BEAUTE 96 

Film Theory vs. The Cinematic Detail 98 

The Narrative: Containing the "Show-Off 102 

Gendering the Distraction: Women and the "Street of Life" 106 

A Mise-en-scene of Desire and the Flaneuse Ill 

"A Tempting Trace of the Film's Potential". 127 

5 ACCESSORIES AFTER THE FACT 130 

WORKS CITED 161 

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 168 



n 



Abstract of Disset tation Presented to the Graduate School 

of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the 

Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy 

CONSUMING DISTRACTIONS: 
COMMODITIES, VISUAL PLEASURE, AND FILM THEORY 

By 

Tracy Cox 

May 2000 

Chair: Robert Ray 

Major Department: English 

My dissertation examines the tension between the rationalizing "narratives" of 
film theory and the irrational distractions of the cinematic detail. Traditionally, film 
theory proposes grand narratives that read movies (or groups of movies) allegorically, 
foregrounding particular patterns and ignoring individual details. Yet certain avant- 
garde theorists suggest that cinema lives at the level of detail. And in fact, many 
spectators can vividly recall details of the mise-en-scene, while easily forgetting the 
"moral of the story." Despite Classical Hollywood cinema's basis in narrative 
continuity, certain visual "distractions" point to the continued presence of a "cinema of 
attractions," a pre-narrative, presentational mode appropriated by the avant-garde. 

I question why contemporary film theory (particularly feminist film theory) 
tends to devalue the cinematic detail, requiring its acquiescence to a grand narrative. 
At the core of this question lies the issue of fetishism. I challenge the prevailing notion 

iii 



of fetishism as a pernicious pathology and instead argue that when we examine the 
theory of the fetish (generalized from its anthropological, Marxist, and psychoanalytic 
origins), we find the foundation of the visual, material culture that characterizes 
modernity. I uncover particular "fetish-friendly" theories that celebrate the cinematic 
detail, and, in my final chapter, suggest ways these theories might be appropriated for a 
method of film criticism. 



IV 



CHAPTER 1 
INTRODUCTION 

A certain film opens with the following images: a steam-whistle blows, factory 
doors open, and workers flood the city streets, returning to their homes after another 
day of labor. These images come from a movie that emblematizes a significant 
moment in cinematic history while also representing the issues addressed in this 
dissertation. The significant moment concerns the origins not of cinematic projections, 
but of what Charles Eckert calls "Hollywood's role in the evolution of consumerism" 
(Eckert 119). The film is MGM's 1931 version of Possessed, starring Joan Crawford and 
Clark Gable. 

As the film continues, the Lumiere-esque documentary is quickly "Hollywood- 
ized": The camera closes in on one female worker, Marian (Joan Crawford) whose 
desires set the narrative in place. Marian's visible dissatisfaction with life in a 
cardboard-box factory mirrors Hollywood cinema's dissatisfaction with documenting 
working-class reality. Like the average Hollywood cinema-goer, Marian dreams of 
escaping from her menial work-a-day existence and enjoying her share of the finer 
things in life. She leaves the factory with Al, her coworker and hopeful suitor, who 
represents the reality Marian wishes to escape. Al proposes marriage one more time, 
and upon rejection laments, "Gee, you're a funny kid. What do you want anyhow?" "I 
don't know," Marian confesses. "I only know I won't find it here." 



2 
Possessed— di\\ apt title, pointing to both Marian's urgent longings for "the good 

life," and to the possessions that house those longings— aptly demonstrates the 

correlation of commodities and desires that increasingly characterized modern life. As 

Marian continues her walk home, she soon finds what she wants. She stops at the 

railroad track to await a passing train and gazes rapturously at the delights displayed in 

the window of each pullman. The first window shows servants preparing cocktails and 

hors d'oeuvres; the second pullman contains a maid, ironing silk undergarments; the 

third displays an immaculately coiffed woman wearing a lace slip and putting on silk 

stockings; the next shows the silhouette of a gentleman shaving; and the final pullman 

displays a formally-dressed couple in the midst of an intimate tango. Marian stands 

before each window in contemplative silence, enraptured by the opulent displays that 

make concrete her desires. For the first time in the movie, she appears truly inspired. 

This scene embodies the key issues involved in my examination of the tension 

between the rationalizing "narratives" of film theory and the irrational distractions of 

the cinematic detail. Traditionally, film theory proposes grand narratives that read 

movies (or groups of movies) allegorically, foregrounding particular patterns while 

ignoring individual details. Yet, as the scene from Possessed shows, cinema lives at the 

level of the detail. No doubt, the movie delivers a predictable narrative onto which one 

could dutifully map a given theory — it exemplifies "false consciousness" from a Marxist 

perspective, or, from a feminist perspective, it shows the displacement of women's 

desires onto commodities. Yet as a spectator, what I remember first and foremost 

about the movie is not the "moral of the story," but the details within the slowly 



3 
moving train windows that impede the narrative. Marian, standing before the train, 

represents the cinema spectator, whose attention might be distracted at any moment 

by a given visual detail. The purposeful movement of the train corresponds to classical 

Hollywood cinema's basis in narrative continuity, while the distractions within the 

individual windows point to the continued presence of a "cinema of attractions," a pre- 

narrative, presentational mode appropriated by the avant-garde. 

Thus my initial confounding of MGM's Possessed and Lumiere's Workers Leaving 
the Factory amounts to more than a gimmick. For even as Possessed represents Classical 
Hollywood Cinema (with its supposed foundation in voyeuristic narrative and 
continuity editing), it retains traces of the exhibitionistic, "primitive" cinema a la 
Lumiere. Tom Gunning calls this "primitive" style the "cinema of attractions" which 
"directly solicits spectator attention inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure 
through an exciting spectacle" (Gunning "Cinema of Attractions" 58). Possessed-- and in 
fact many other narrative films of the 1920s and 30s— retains this element as it moves 
not only "inward towards the character-based sitations essential to classical narrative" 
(emblematized in the focus from the mass of workers onto Marian) but also "outward 
towards an acknowledged spectator" (exemplified by the luxurious displays framed in 
each window of the train, which seduce both the diegetic character and the cinema 
spectator) (Gunning 59). 

Gunning's notion of "attractions" coincides with cinema's ability to "function as 
living display windows for all that they contained; windows that were occupied by 
marvelous mannequins and swathed in a fetish-inducing ambiance of music and 



4 
emotion" (Eckert 103). As Charles Eckert reminds us, the "attractions" of cinema were 

often the latest fashions, appliances, and home accessories that Hollywood promoted 

whether through explicit "tie-ups" with corporations, or through a more general notion 

of "showcasing." Thus the exhibitionistic tendency of mise-en-scene for many popular 

films of the 1920s and 30s involved not only displays of show-girls and exotic locales, 

but of commodities. Cinema endowed the mundane objects of everyday life with a 

magnificent sheen, contributing to the fetish-character of modern commodities. 

My study proposes that we view commodities as art-objects or artifacts, 
examining their ability to satisfy the aesthetic and social needs of individuals who enjoy 
them. I understand that the glitz and glamour of commodities can conceal the uglier 
side of industrial capitalism — the very fashions and decor I discuss were produced at a 
great expense. My focus on the pleasures of consumption is not meant to preclude 
reformations in the production process. Yet, even as they conceal their means of 
production, the commodities that Marian sees on the train symbolize her ideals and 
their form, shape, and texture elicit her aesthetic pleasure. It is this process, this 
notion of creative consumption, that forms my focus. 

Not only did the Industrial Revolution affect all levels of culture, but it also 
articulated the Utopian promise of leveling all culture, creating an abundant democracy 
with Model-T's for all. Though the realities of production were far from utopic, the 
pleasures of consumption intensified as the newly industrialized cities enabled a 
proliferation of relatively inexpensive entertainments to a growing number of people, 
originating "mass art" or "mass culture." These mass cultural commodities begin to 



5 
represent pleasure, fantasy, and Utopian desires of the masses, comprising what 

Rosalind Williams calls the "dream world of the consumer" (Williams). 

My project investigates the role of consumerism and its relationship to cinema's 
visual details, revealing that central to an understanding of these consumer objects and 
their cinematic deployment is the process of fetishism. Unlike many film and cultural 
critics who cite fetishism as a malady of consumer culture, I suggest that fetishism is an 
inevitable and potentially useful artistic process that characterizes material culture. A 
discussion of fetishism's significance and potentials unites the following three chapters: 
Chapter 2 examines the commodities that represent the dreams and desires of modern 
consumers; Chapter 3 explores the cinematic process that vivifies these commodities; 
Chapter 4 provides textual analysis of Prix de Beaute, one film that narrativizes these 
debates. These debates culminate in Chapter 5, which experiments with a method of 
writing about cinema that appropriates the logic of fetishism. 

Chapter 2, "Commodity Fetishism and the Materials of Culture," uncovers the 
historical roots of this relationship between ideals and mass-produced objects, exploring 
how the "artifact" supplants the "artwork" in everyday life. This transformation, 
begun in the 19th century, responds to the rise of the urban masses and the changing 
face of aesthetic need initiated by the fast-paced, image-laden modern cityscape. The 
bourgeois tradition of intellectual contemplation of the isolated work of art becomes 
displaced by a more sensory, immediate experience of the artifacts of mass culture, an 
experience Walter Benjamin likens to "distraction." To anchor this theory, I examine a 
specific, and white literal, manifestation of material culture in the 19th century: 



6 
fashion. I show how certain fashion debates teplicate the incteasing importance of the 

mass-produced artifact in meeting the symbolic and aesthetic needs of the masses. 

Further, I show how this process is inevitably fetishistic, as ideals are displaced onto the 

materials of culture. 

The sartorial debate known as the "Great Masculine Renunciation" of the 19th 
century prefigures the early-20th-century's modern aesthetic that culminates in 
Hollywood and European cinema of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In many ways, 
the 19th-century English dandy emerges from the same tensions that produce the 
modern aesthetic. Even as he remains nostalgic for the luxuries of the aristocracy and 
contemptuous of the bourgeoisie's supposed vulgarity, he represents the ideals of 
"liberty, fraternity, and equality." Both democratic and decadent, practical and 
decorous, the Dandy combines seemingly incongruent qualities into a synthesized 
whole. Several important modernist texts offer compelling salutes to the Dandy, as 
they describe a figure worthy of representing the modernist aesthetic and its complex 
synthesis of the above binaries. Charles Baudelaire (writing in the 1850s), and Adolf 
Loos (writing in the 1890s) anticipate many aspects of what will be called modernism 
in the 1920s; significantly, the English dandy figures prominently in their writings. 

Chapter 3, "Toward a Fetish-Friendly Feminism," posits that cinema was for the 
20th century what the English dandy was for the 19th century. In many ways 
cinema echoes the dialectical foundation of the modern aesthetic. With its basis in 
both human ideals and scientific technology, cinema represents the ultimate 
coincidence of art and industry; like the dandy, cinema is enabled by modern 



7 
technologies, practiced as a democtatic medium, and driven by reason and function 

even as it incorporates irrational elements of desire, fantasy, and imagination. I suggest 

that Walter Benjamin's notion of cinema as "distraction" attempts to theorize cinema's 

simultaneously artistic and scientific foundation. These debates become gendered in 

Hollywood movies of the late twenties and early thirties that narrativize the problems 

represented by the "New Woman's" entrance into the traditionally masculine spheres 

of business and industry. 

Contrasting feminist film theory's almost universal hostility toward fetishism, I 
take my cue from avant-garde theorists who see fetishism as an inevitable and 
potentially useful creative process. The Impressionists' and surrealists' mobilization of 
photogenie (the cinematic "transfiguration" of mundane objects) seizes upon cinema's 
capacity to subvert its own narrative through a distracting mise-en-scene. A film, they 
proposed, needn't be avant-garde in its production to be avant-garde in its effects. The 
psychoanalytic view that dominates much feminist theory addresses the same 
phenomenon the surrealists described as photogenie, but finds oppression where they 
found liberation, describing the woman as the object of the fetishizing male gaze and as 
impediment to the narrative. 

But perhaps liberation lies in women's increasing facility with the attractions of 
mise-en-scene — lingering shots of busy city streets, shop windows, fashions (sometimes 
actual fashion shows), interior decor — while constraing emerges from cinema's 
awkward narrative conventions that typically "marry off' the woman in the end. With 
the notable exception of Anne Friedberg's work on the fldneuse, few accounts of early 






8 
cinema engage the feminist implications of Benjamin's distracted flaneur or Aragon's 

enraptured observer. 

Chapter 4, "Consuming Distractions in Prix de Beaute," further develops these 

arguments, applying them to the international context of Prix de Beaute, the French 

production of 1930, starring the American actress Louise Brooks. The film traces the 

heroine Lucienne's Cinderella-like transformation from laboring typesetter to famous 

beauty queen. On one level, the film predictably punishes Lucienne for her narcissistic 

consumerism, yet a closer look reveals unresolved tensions and excesses that refuse to 

be contained by the narrative. The "newsreel" style of Prix de Beaute anticipates the 

Neorealist aesthetic and functions similarly as it often enables the mise-en-scene to exist 

for its own sake, independent of narrative motivation. The broad tableaux of scenery 

function much as department store windows, providing projections of working-class 

fantasies of abundance promised by the modern industrial cities. Siegfried Kracauer 

disparagingly labels these fantasies "distractions" and laments the naivete of the "little 

shopgirls" as they model themselves after the images they see on the silver screen. 

Yet Kracauer's notion of female fantasy ultimately foregrounds narrative at 

the expense of mise-en-scene. I counter this narrative-based notion of fantasy with 

Elizabeth Cowie's notion of fantasy as the "mise-en-scene of desire," a distinction that 

acknowledges the significance of cinema's visual details. In fact, the "newsreel" style of 

Prix encourages a "window-shopping" mode of spectatorship, perhaps better 

approximating the progressive potentials of the distraction than does Kracauer himself. 

In the chapter's final section, I propose a critical intervention that mimics the form of 






9 
the distraction, revealing itself in a "fragmented sequence of splendid sense 

impressions" (Kracauer 326). 

The final chapter represents an experiment, appropriating cinema's fetishistic 
logic into a method of film criticism. I suggest that much academic film criticism 
either "explains away" or ignores the irrational, sensual pleasure of the image, and I 
argue instead for a film criticism that engages the concrete, visual pleasures of cinema 
even as it critiques and theorizes. I look to Walter Benjamin's and Charles Baudelaire's 
appropriations of the dandy, or the flaneur, as a model for a more tactile, immediate 
criticism that might "transform the volupte into connaissance" (Mayne x). 

The chapter, entitled "Accessories After the Fact," offers a series of discrete 
analytical fragments, each activated by a particular fashion accessory that functions 
similarly to Benjamin's dialectical image. Like Benjamin's description of the dialectical 
image, these accessories demand an interrogative reading. Examining a series of 
several film stills from early cinema (my own "screen memories") as shop windows, I 
suggest tha specific details within the mise-en-scene (a bracelet from Prix de Beaute, a 
dress from Princesse Tarn Tarn, a cigarette holder from Flesh and the Devil) house 
information. Like the "accessory after the fact" who shelters knowledge about a crime 
that has been committed, the accessories within the stills require interrogation. 
Rather than repress my attraction to these particular details, I use it to produce 
knowledge, transforming the volupte into connaissance. Like the wandering fldneuse, I 
follow the logic of my own desire, isolating details that, like Barthes' "third meanings" 
demand an interrogative reading, encouraging turns of phrase and poetic detours. 



CHAPTER 2 
COMMODITY FETISHISM AND THE MATERIALS OF CULTURE 



Those letters advertising a make of soap are the equivalent of 
characters on an obelisk or the inscription in a book of spells: 
they describe the fate of an era. 

— Louis Aragon 

The dilemma of fashion is the dilemma of all modern art: 
what is its purpose and how is it to be used in the world of 
'mechanical reproduction?' 

— Elizabeth Wilson 



I began the introduction by describing the opening scenes of Possessed, the 1931 
film that traces one woman's social and economic climb during the Depression. I 
suggested that the film's title aptly points to the possessions, the actual material 
objects, that embody one woman's desires and possess her imagination. This chapter 
examines the significance of such possessions, suggesting that their increasing 
importance in the early twentieth century represents one of modernity's founding 
dilemmas: the meeting of aesthetics and science. With the advent of industrialization 
and mass-production, commodities began to supplant the traditional role of art in 
meeting the aesthetic, symbolic needs of the masses. 

In a recent study, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi set out to examine how 
art "orders human experience," a time-honored cliche dating from Aristotle. He and 
his students conducted interviews with a "representative cross-section of families in the 

10 



11 

Chicago area, to find out how 'normal' people responded to art objects ... in their 
environment." He writes that, "Soon after we started interviewing, however, we 
realized that we were having difficulties. The people we talked to, even professional, 
educated persons, had very little to say about the subject. They were able to repeat a 
few impersonal cliches, but it was clear that art played a decidedly insignificant role in 
their lives" (Csikszentmihalyi 118). His interviews unearthed a significant pattern: 
"There were, however, in every home, several artifacts to which the owners were 
strongly attached. These objects often lacked any discernible esthetic value, but they 
were charged with meanings that conveyed a sense of integrity and purpose to the lives 
of the owners" (4). He re-focused his study to examine "the meanings of household 
objects." 

The re-focusing of this study— from "art" to "artifact"— mirrors a transformation 
on a much larger scale. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," 
Walter Benjamin writes that, "The manner in which human sense perception is 
organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature, 
but by historical circumstances as well" (Benjamin 5). This chapter, then, unearths the 
historical circumstances that contribute to this withering of "art" and flourishing of 
"artifacts" in everyday life. Commodities, Benjamin writes, "liberated creativity from 



art." 1 



The chapter consists of two sections. First I propose a revisionist history of 
commodity fetishism, exploring how theories of material culture problematize much 
cultural criticism that enlists "fetishism" to diagnose the ills of consumer culture. The 



12 
commodity as artifact is complex: even as it conceals its means of production and 
becomes fodder for capitalist exploitation, it provides aesthetic pleasure for the masses 
and maintains a residue of industrialism's Utopian promise of abundance. 

Considering beloved possessions in his own home, writer and architectural 
preservationist Brendan Gill asks, "Is it absurd for me— for all of us— to care so much for 
what are but objects?" These seemingly useless baubles and knick-knacks do serve a 
purpose, he decides, and a lofty one at that: "Our possessions," he writes, are "our 
household gods, in direct descent from {the lares and penates of the ancient Romans]." 
They provide pleasure, security, familiarity; "they are sacred to us as standing for 
something stronger and longer lasting than we are" (Gill 30). Clearly, Gill's 
descriptions of household objects betray an attitude that contemporary cultural studies 
would deem "fetishistic," even symptomatic of "false consciousness." But such a 
diagnosis constitutes only part of the story. Part One of this chapter, "Fascinating 
Fetishism," examines how fetishism is an inevitable and even constructive mechanism 
employed by individuals and groups as they displace cultural values and ideals onto 
objects. 

In the second section, I turn to a specific, and quite literal, manifestation of 
material culture in the 19th century: fashion. I explore how the sartorial revolution 
known as the "Great Masculine Renunciation" represents this complex relationship 
between commodities and ideals, and illuminates one of modernity's defining debates: 
the conflict of function vs. ornament. In the Great Masculine Renunciation lie the 
roots of what Susan Buck-Morss calls the "total revolution in style" witnessed by 



13 
Walter Benjamin's generation whereby "modern" came to signify a streamlined, 
relatively unornamented, "functional" aesthetic that drastically contrasted 19th century 
styles (Buck-Morss 236). I suggest that the Great Masculine Renunciation manifests a 
particular affinity with modernist design, as both campaign against superfluous 
ornament and irrational display, opposing what Rosalind Williams calls the "chaotic- 
exotic" Victorian aesthetic. Emerging as a product of the Renunciation is the English 
dandy, a figure who bridges the function/ornament dichotomy and anticipates what I 
will term the "modern aesthetic," a meeting of modernism and mass culture 
represented in the "art deco" or "art moderne" designs that become synonymous with 
Hollywood glamour in the 1920s and 30s. 

Fascinating Fetishism 
The diagnosis of "fetishism" is so often evoked among cultural critics that it has 
become somewhat of a panacea. It is used by Marxists to explain the popularity of 
designer jeans; by film theorists to explain why Hollywood starlets appear in sequined 
dresses; by psychoanalysts to explain why men eroticize a particular article of clothing. 
Its uses are frequent and disparate. It has even crept into the popular vernacular. A 
recent advertisement for Vogue magazine proclaims, "Forget politically correct, Imelda 
had it right —good fortune is measured by shoe boxes piled to the ceiling. Shoes make 
you happy. That's why VOGUE reports on shoes like nobody else. . . . Where else are 
you going to find a magazine with such a fetish about your feet?" This advertisement, 
scoffing in the face of Marxist and Freudian definitions of fetishism, may represent 
what Emily Apter calls fetishism's inevitable "deconstructive turn," citing Baudrillard's 



14 
claim that the term has "a life of its own" (Apter "Specularity" 20). In the very least, it 
represents a culture's simultaneous confusion and fascination with a term that remains 
difficult to pin down. 

In one sense, the present study symptomatizes this fascination with fetishism; 
yet in another, more urgent sense, it challenges the prevailing notion of fetishism as a 
pernicious pathology of an ailing society. Rather, I suggest that when we examine a 
theory of the fetish (generalized from its anthropological, Marxist, and psychoanalytic 
origins), we find the foundation of the visual, material culture that characterizes 
modernity. Far from identifying an aberrent malady, fetishism more aptly identifies 
everyday negotiations between humans and objects in modern society. 
Theorizing the Fetish 

In a series of three articles entitled "The Problem of the Fetish," William Pietz 
conducts an exhaustive examination of fetishism's origins, establishing that "there is a 
common configuration of themes among the various discourses about fetishism" (Pietz, 
"Fetish II" 23) His analysis outlines a general theory of the fetish that in many ways 
mirrors the guiding principles of material culture studies. Before examining the field of 
material culture studies and its relationship to a theory of the fetish, I offer a brief 
summary of fetishism's origins. 

The term "fetishism" was first used in the sixteenth century by European traders 
in Africa to describe what they perceived as irrational trade practices. The Africans 
offered exorbitant amounts of goods in exchange for certain inexpensive European 
baubles, and likewise demanded an excessive price for certain of their own religious 






15 
objects. "Desiring a clean economic interaction," William Pietz writes, "seventeenth- 
century merchants unhappily found themselves entering into social relations and quasi- 
religious ceremonies that should have been irrelevant to the conduct of trade" (Pietz 45. 
The Europeans, unable to understand why the Africans valued certain objects so highly, 
described the natives as uncivilized savages, deriding their childish y£m.f0, a Portuguese 
word that referred to the over-valued objects. Emily Apter writes, "the word fetisso and 
its phonological cognates has provoked a chain of divergent interpretations, all 
generated according to the codes of a Romance linguistics forced to accept the 
untranslatable Other into its thoroughly Western genealogy" (Apter 3-4). Thus the 
term originated as an anthropological attempt to label the irrational, mystical values 
attributed to particular objects in non- Western cultures. The assumption, of course, 
was that no such "primitive" practice characterized Western culture. 

Marx's critique of industrial capitalism challenged this assumption by declaring 
that all commodities are fetish objects. The consumer should value a commodity 
because it represents human labour, but instead values it because it "abounds in 
metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" (Marx 444). The laborer who 
produces the commodity remains alienated from the means of production within 
industrial capitalism. He doesn't own the machinery or factory required to produce the 
commodity, and therefore doesn't receive the payment for the commodity. Rather, the 
profit goes to the capitalist who owns the means of production. The commodity, 
bearing no traces of the labor that produced it, seems to exist on its own accord, 
attaining a life of its own. "A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply 



16 
because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective 
character stamped upon the product of that labour" (Marx 446). Marx declares, "This 
I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are 
produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of 
commodities" (Marx 447). Thus the fetish is the superficial gleam of the commodity 
that conceals its means of production. 

Freud likewise used the term to refer to an over-valued object of concealment. 
In this case, what is concealed is not the means of production, but the mother's lack of 
penis. According to Freud, the fetishist is born when a male child, confronted by the 
sight of his mother's gentials, cannot bear the knowledge that she has no penis (which 
would reinforce his own castration anxiety) and averts his eyes to a nearby object (her 
foot, shoe, pubic hair, etc.) which becomes the phallic substitute and fetish object. 
Thus a strict Freudian definition establishes fetishism as solely the province of males. 
The female cannot fetishize because she does not experience castration anxiety and thus 
has no need to deny the mother's "castration." 

Common among these three applications of fetishism is a displacing of some 
ideal (supernatural power in the anthropological definition, the value of labor in the 
Marxist view, and a belief in the mother's penis for the Freudian) onto an object. In 
each case, the fetish object represents a displaced value: the African "savage" displaces 
supernatural powers onto carvings of deities; the commodity fetishist displaces the 
value of labor and human creativity onto the commodity; the Freudian fetishist 
displaces the belief in the mother's penis onto the foot. For each, the fetish object 



17 
represents intangible beliefs, values, and ideals. Tracing the original uses of the term- 
anthropological, Freudian, and Marxist— reveals an underlying emphasis on artifice, as 
each discipline describes "the trajectory of an idee fixe or noumen in search of its 
materialist twin" (Apter 4). 

William Pietz argues that, "Despite the use of [fetishism] in a variety of 
disciplines that claim no common theoretical ground. . . there is a common 
configuration of themes among the various discourses about fetishism. Four themes 
consistently inform the idea of the fetish" (Pietz, "Fetish II" 23). He identifies the 
themes: 1) historicization, 2) territorialization, 3) reification, and 4)personalization. 
Historicization refers to the fetish's "status as the fixation or inscription of a unique 
originating event that has brought together previously heterogeneous elements into a 
novel identity" (Pietz, "Fetish I" 7). Territorialization identifies the "essential 
materiality of the fetish"— its actual existence as an object in material space (12). 
Reification refers to the object as a material embodiment of abstractions, and 
personalization identifies the intensity of personal response to the fetish object. Pietz 
writes that the "'Fetish' has always named the incomprehensible mystery of the power 
of material things to be collective social objects experienced by individuals as truly 
embodying determinate values or virtues" (14). 
Fetishism and Material Culture 

The cross-disciplinary field of "Material Culture" proposes to understand how 
cultural meanings, values, and ideals become imbedded within the "materials" of a 
given culture. These materials or "artifacts" 2 are construed quite generally, ranging 






18 

from ancient Chinese bronze vessels, to Eighteenth Century landscapes, to 1950s 
dinette sets, to Twiggy's Mod fashions. Art historian Jules David Prown offers this 
succinct account of material culture studies: "The underlying premise is that human- 
made objects reflect, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the beliefs of 
the individuals who commissioned, fabricated, purchased, or used them, and by 
extension, the beliefs of the larger society to which these individuals belonged" (Prown, 
"The Truth" 1) Thus the field of material culture represents an emphasis on materialist 
analysis (actual material objects provide the source of investigation) with a 
psychoanalytic underpinning (objects reflect the unconscious ideals of a society, in both 
their production and consumption). This assumption that objects embody the (often 
unconscious) values and ideals of a society bears a striking resemblance to Pietz's theory 
of the fetish. 

Perhaps the most valuable trait of the artifact for scholars of material culture is 
its "historicization." Just as the fetish is a "meaningful fixation of a singular event, 
above all a 'historical' object," the artifact represents a historical moment. (Pietz, 
"Fetish I" 12). Pietz writes that for Marx, the fetish named "the power of a singular 
historical institution to fix personal consciousness in an objective illusion," whereas for 
psychoanalysts, it named "the power of a singular personal event to structure desire" 
(9). Similarly, the artifact represents a historical moment, frozen in time. Thus it 
proves an invaluable link to the past, for "unlike other historical events, it continues to 
exist in our own time" (Prown 2). 



19 

The notions of territorialization and reification correspond, respectively, to the 
very words "material culture." The fetish, like the artifact, is "'territorialized' in 
material space (an earthly matrix)" (Pietz 12). Pietz writes that "the fetish is precisely 
not a material signifier referring beyond itself, but acts as a material space gathering an 
otherwise unconnected multiplicity into the unity of its enduring singularity" (15). 
Similarly, the artifact is a single, unified material object, that requires no signifer 
beyond itself. . . until the analyst enters and (like the psychoanalyst, Marxist, or 
anthropologist who analyzes the fetish object) identifies the "multiplicity" that the 
object aestheticizes. 

The idea of reification invokes the material object's infusion with cultural 
meanings: "The term 'reification' formalizes the fundamental theme of the 
institutionalized or routinized codes of social value between which a given fetish 
provides a determinate structure of mediation" (Prown, "Can the Farmer" 22). Thus 
reification stresses the "idea of certain material objects as the loci of fixed structures of 
the inscription, displacement, reversal, and overestimation of value" (Pietz 9). This 
notion of displacement remains central to studies of material culture. Jules Prown 
writes that, "the language of objects. . . employs a second level of abstraction analogous 
to figures of speech, including metonymy (one thing representing another), 
synechdoche (a part representing a whole), and similie (Prown, "Can the Farmer" 22). 
In Culture and Consumption, Grant McCracken examines "the evocative power of things," 
relying on the concept of "displaced meaning," which affirms that "cultural meaning 
has deliberately been removed from the daily life of a community and relocated in a 



20 
distant cultural domain" (104). He likens this strategy of displacement to "a useful 
sleight of hand, one that sustains hope in the face of impressive grounds for pessimism" 
(108). Goods act as repositories for these displaced meanings "by somehow 
concretizing these things in themselves," and can thus "become a bridge to displaced 
meaning" (110). 

Pietz concludes his theory of the fetish by describing how "this reified, 
territorialized, historical object is also personalized in the sense that beyond its status as 
a collective social object, it evokes an intensely personal response from individuals" 
(12). This "personalization" of commodities is addressed in studies of material culture 
that emphasize the role of consumption rather than production of commodites. In a 
recent article, Daniel Miller writes that most material culture scholars have 
"relinquished a simpler Marxist ontology that insisted a priori that the species being is 
constituted in the act of production, to an appreciation that the key moment in which 
people construct themselves or are constructed by others is increasingly through 
relations with cultural forms in the arena of consumption" (Miller, "Why Some Things 
Matter"). Such studies examine what Pietz calls "the reified object's power to fix 
identifications and disavowals that ground the self-identity o particular, concrete 
individuals" (15). 

In Culture and Consumption, McCracken proposes that the "rosebud" insignia on 
the sled in the movie Citizen Kane exemplifies the "evocative power of things" that I'm 
suggesting mirrors the fetish. "Rosebud," the sled, provides the locus of Kane's 
displaced longings for the simple pleasures of his childhood. If only he had realized its 



21 
significance sooner, the object could have served as a bridge, carving a path to a happier 

time. "A popular interpretation of the movie finds a 'anti-materialistic' message in the 

movie," McCracken writes. "Poor, misguided Kane seeks his happiness in things, in a 

pathology of consumption. But the real nature of Kane's difficulty is not that he seeks 

his happiness in things. . . . The real nature of his difficulty is that he is unable to 

determine in which of his possessions this happiness is really (or apparently) resident" 

(111). The sled, as a fetish object—territorialized in material space, representing an 

historical fixation, reifying Kane's happy childhood, and evoking his intensely personal 

response— represents a potentially constructive displacement. 

Though McCracken and the other analysts of material cutlure never identify 

their "artifacts" as fetish objects, and though analysts of "fetishism" never equate the 

fetish with a general understanding of material culture, the parallels are undeniable. 

Jean Baudrillard writes that today the term fetish "refers to a force, a supernatural 

property of the object and hence to a similar magical potential in the subject. . . But 

originally it signified exactly the opposite: a fabrication, an artifact, a labour of 

appearances and signs" (Baudrillard 91). What is Citizen Kane's "Rosebud," if not a 

fetish object? Reflecting on his theory of the fetish, Pietz comes dangerously close to 

equating the fetish and artifact: "If the fetish, as theorized out of the entire history of 

the term itself, can be taken as a name for the total collective material object, at once 

social and personal, then Merleau-Ponty is right in saying that 'tout objet historique est 

fetiche" (Pietz 14). Pietz attempts to temper this realization by trumping up the 

rhetoric: "The fetish might then be viewed as the locus of a sort of primary and carnal 



22 
rhetoric of identification and disavowal that establishes conscious and unconscious value 
judgements connecting territorialized social things and embodied personal individuals 
within a series of singular historical fixations" (14). In short, all historical objects (once 
personalized) are fetishes. 

Daniel Miller, a prominent scholar of Material Culture directly addresses 
charges of fetishism leveled at studies of artifacts and consumption by particular 
academic factions. He addresses Material Culture's uneasy assimilation into 
mainstream academia: 

The deeply integrated place of the artefact in constituting culture and 
human relations has made discussion of it one of the most difficult of all 
areas to include in abstract academic discourse. The mundane artefact is 
not merely problematic but inevitably embarassing as the focused topic 
of analysis, a practice which always appears fetishistic. (Miller, Material 
Culture and Mass Consumption 130). 

In the recent anthology, Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter , Miller continues to 

manifest this anxiety of being deemed "fetishistic": "One of the reasons that material 

culture was avoided as the primary focus of attention [in pioneering works that 

introduced the artefact as a vital element of culture} was that it invited the accusation 

of fetishism" (Miller 5). He goes on to argue that his approach "remains focused upon 

the object that is being investigated but within a tradition that prevents any simple 

fetishization of material form." Many analysts of material culture, he writes, experience 

an "apparent embarassment at being, as it were, caught gazing at mere objects," an 

activity he equates with fetishism (9). 

Miller criticizes the traditional uses of fetishism that adhere more closely to the 

Vogue advertisement I cited than to any Marxist, Freudian, or anthropological uses. To 



23 
fetishize— for Vogue, and for much of academia— means to strongly, irrationally, and 

almost always destructively, like something. In Material Culture and Mass Consumption. 
Miller directly challenges traditional uses of fetishism to denigrate studies of material 
culture: "Fetishism is used to assert in a very broad form a general discontent with 
consumer culture and the nature of goods, accompanied by an asceticism conveyed as a 
feeling of the general malaise of materialism" (204). He then challenges the reader to 
consider how any examination of culture involves an objectification of values and 
beliefs— in this sense, all culture is fetishistic: "All . . . social relations are predicated 
upon culture, that is objectification, and material goods are merely one, though an 
increasingly important, form of culture. The blanket assumption of fetishism is 
therefore predicated on the false notion of a pre-cultural social subject" (204). Many 
accounts of fetishism emerge from this "general malaise of materialism" felt by 
intellectuals who miss the point that all art, whether "high" or "low" is inescapabily 
"materialistic." 

Certainly, the fetish object does elict a strong and irrational pleasure, but to 
assume that academia is (or even should be) immune from pleasure and fetishism misses 
the point. In her defense of aesthetic pleasure, Wendy Steiner writes that "those who 
take intense pleasure in art and value it accordingly are said to 'fetishize' it. It is a sign 
of the puritanism of American culture that the nearest we come to a word for intense 
aesthetic pleasure is so distinctly negative a term" (Steiner 80-81). Her argument is 
particularly original and compelling, because rather than negate the charges of 
'fetishism,' she affirms it: "One of the major functions of critics and teachers is to help 



24 
others invest art with value, in effect to help them to 'fetishize' it" (81). She argues 
that "fetishism" is inherent in the process of valuing an object, be it art or otherwise. 
"The fetishist's error supposedly lies in the habit of fetishizing per se, but in fact 
consists in choosing the 'wrong' fetishes. ... As history shows, those most critical of a 
given fetish are often those most anxious to displace it with one of their own" (81). 
Steiner captures the essence of Miller's observation that all culture hinges on fetishism. 
Academics who make accusations of fetishism are not criticizing the act of fetishism, 
then, but the specific value held by the given fetishist. 

What sometimes assumes the character of revelation in much Marxist criticism 
(that goods express social relations), serves as a founding premise for scholars of 
material culture. Commodities as artifacts are invaluable resources for investingating 
the debates that define a given culture. They concretize dreams and desires, and enable 
individuals to articulate that which might otherwise remain unconscious, and for this 
reason, they are not only worthy of, but demand, academic attention. 

In the following section, I examine how specific debates and historical 
developments of the 19th century anticipate the increasing importance of the 
seemingly superficial artifact in everyday life, and further complicate theories of 
material culture and fetishism. The transformation from the highly ornamental, 
unorganized Victorian aesthetic to the highly streamlined, harmonious modern 
aesthetic might be seen as an attempt to regulate, or even eliminate fetishism. 
Ironically, the streamlined designs predicated on Modernist principles of function and 



25 
simplicity become the prime signifier of the most fetishized, magnificent exemplar of 

material culture to date, classical Hollywood cinema. 

Material Culture of the Nineteenth-Century 

Celebrating the "Chaotic-Exotic" 

In Dream Worlds: Mass-Consumption in Late Nineteenth Century France, Rosalind 
Williams traces the origins of "consumer lifestyles" to the world expositions that begin 
with London's Crystal Palace of 1851. She writes that, "The purpose of all expositions 
was, in the popular phrase of the time, to teach a 'lesson of things'" (Williams 58). It is 
precisely this "lesson of things" that orients studies of artifacts in modern life, as the 
recent anthology, Learning From Things, aptly attests (Kingery). But the historically 
specific "things" and "lessons" Williams investigates represent a significant cultural 
transformation, comprising what Benjamin calls the "historical circumstances" through 
which "the mode of human sense perception changes" (734). Williams explains that 
"Things' meant, for the most part, the recent products of scientific knowledge and 
technical innovation that were revolutionizing daily life; the 'lesson' was the social 
benefit of this unprecedented material and intellectual progress" (58). This was the 
"official" account, at least. In actuality, these expositions initiated an era in which "the 
sensual pleasures of consumption clearly triumphed over the abstract intellectual 
enjoyment of contemplating the progress of knowledge" (59-60). 

Williams describes how the world expositions anticipated department stores, as 
each commingled desires and commodities in a style she terms the "chaotic-exotic," 
characterized by "syncretism, anachronism, illogicality, flamboyance, and childishness" 



26 
(69). The "hodgepodge of visual themes" reflects that "the purpose is not to express 
internal consistency but to bring together anything that expresses distance from the 
ordinary." Further, the "exotic decor exists as an intermediate form of life between art 
and commerce. It resembles art. . . yet it does not participate in traditional artistic 
goals of creating beauty, harmony, and spiritual significance" (71). Rather, "behind the 
'ornamental delirium,'. . . behind its seemingly mad disorder, behind its silly and 
serious deceptions alike, lies a strictly logical and consistent ordering principle: the 
submission of truth, of coherence, of taste. . ." (63). The "chaotic-exotic," then, 
anticipates the irrational, sensual, "distracting" aesthetic of mass culture that 
supplanted bourgeois artforms that affirmed "traditional artistic goals." 

I find Williams' description of the "chaotic-exotic" interesting for two reasons: 
First, it marks the supplanting of art with artifact; and second, it pinpoints precisely the 
debates that will orient Modernism in the early twentieth century. The displays of the 
world expositions and the department stores replace the traditional role allotted to art 
in ordering experience and providing aesthetic pleasure. The artifact, of course, meets 
aesthetic needs differently than did traditional art, and this contrast spawned many 
debates among cultural critics of modernity. My discussion of cinema in Chapter 2 
focuses on Benjamin's theories of mass culture's radical redefinition of aesthetic value, 
while my examination of Prix de Beaute in Chapter 3 discusses Siegfried Kracauer's 
complex response to this transformation. Both Benjamin and Kracauer address the loss 
of "contemplation" encouraged by traditional art, and attempt to theorize the 
"distractions" of mass culture that supplant this tradition. 



27 

Williams' description of the "chaotic-exotic" illuminates the key debates that 
distinguish art in the early twentieth century. We might see high Modernism as an 
attempt to restore the "artistic" values displaced by the "dream worlds of mass 
consumption." In fact, the values championed by many proponents of modernism 
correspond precisely to the qualities denied by the "chaotic-exotic" : internal 
consistency, harmony, spiritual significance, truth, coherence, taste. The roots of this 
"modern aesthetic" are discernable in fashion debates of the Nineteenth century. The 
"Great Masculine Renunciation" refers to a particular moment of fashion history that 
materializes this pitting of the "chaotic-exotic" against the streamlined, "functional" 
aesthetic that eventually distinguishes modern fashion. As its name attests, the Great 
Masculine Renunciation genders this debate, with wide-ranging implications. 
Streamlining the "Chaotic-Exotic" 

Fashion historians often contrast adornment of the sexes in modern Western 
society with that of the animal kingdom. The male animal of course-from the 
irridescent colors and strut of the peacock to the lush mane of the lion-far surpasses 
the female in conspicuous display. In most accounts of modern fashion, however, the 
female devotes considerable time and attention to her wardrobe and toiletry, while the 
male adopts a uniform of sober practicality. In modern times, "fashion" generally refers 
to a feminine enterprise, frivolous and irrational. The modern male might devote 
attention to his clothing, but seems somehow immune to the follies of fashion. How did 
this separation of clothing -dad fashion emerge? And how did we arrive at such a 
gendered bifurcation that has only recently been challenged? The answer lies in what 



28 

psychoanalyst J. C. Flugel, writing in 1930, termed "The Great Masculine 

Renunciation" (Flugel). 

"The Great Masculine Renunciation" refers to the clothing reformations 

following the French Revolution, in which men abandoned the ornamental foppery of 

the aristocracy and adopted a sober, unadorned uniform of democracy. 3 Flugel 

describes "the sudden reduction of male sartorial decorativeness which took place at the 

end of the eighteenth century:" 

one of the most remarkable events in the whole history of dress, one 
under the influence of which we are still living, one, moreover, which has 
attracted far less attention than it deserves: men gave up their right to 
all the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of 
ornamentation, leaving these entirely to the use of women, and thereby 
making their own tailoring the most austere and ascetic of the arts. 
Sartorially, this event has surely the right to be considered as 'The Great 
Masculine Renunciation.' Man abandoned his claim to be considered 
beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful. (Flugel 111) 

Thus Flugel reflects the general assumption that fashion's relevance for men and 

women altered drastically with the advent of modernity: it became increasingly 

important for women, while dropping out completely from the lives of men. Such a 

view reflects the premise that usefulness and fashion are mutually exclusive, a premise 

that the English dandy will challenge. 

The apparent incompatibility of utility and fashion results primarily from a 

coincidence of two events: 1) the bourgeois rebellion against the ruling aristocracy 

(typified by the French Revolution whose force spread to other countries), and 2) the 

changing roles of men and women in newly created industrialized, democratic societies. 



29 
Prominent among the bourgeois grievances against the aristocracy were the 

sumptuary codes of previous regimes which continued to haunt late eighteenth- and 

early nineteenth-century Western cultures. "The regulations represented an attempt to 

preserve the distinctions in rank, reflected in dress, that were in fact beginning to break 

down with the rise of the urban bourgeoisie" (Wilson 24). In France, for example, 

sovereigns within the Church and the monarchy relied upon their splendid clothing to 

distinguish them from the masses and mark their almighty authority. Decades before 

the Revolution, with the decline of feudalism, such sharply-delineated strata began to 

erode. This potential instability was met with an onslaught of sumptuary laws. For 

example, "During the reign of Louis XIV, even such details as gold braid and buttons 

were minutely regulated according to estate, rank, season, and circumstances" (Perrot 

19). All laborers (essentially everyone outside of the Church elite or the monarchy) 

were required to wear dour garments that distinguished their plebian occupation. 

In an ironic turn, this dour proletarian uniform became the proud raiment of a 

middle-class increasingly disgusted with the excesses (sartorial and otherwise) of Louis 

XVI's court. Perrot explains that "as the Revolution approached, the sober, discreet 

bourgeois clothing, earlier codified and imposed by the regime, became a symbol 

flaunted by its wearers, a kind of increasingly vocal expression of their legitimacy" 

(Perrot 19). Indeed, in the climate of the Revolution, an improperly lavish costume 

alone often distinguished "the enemy," and prompted the guillotine. As fashion 

historian Valerie Steele writes, "the dark suit now became a symbol of political virtue, 

at least in contrast to formal court dress" (Steele, Paris Fashion 46). The bourgeoisie 



30 
favored the anonymity that a common uniform enabled, finding that anonymity, 
ambiguity, and social mobility went hand in hand. 

While male clothing began to emphasize efficient tailoting and comfortable 
materials, female clothing (after a short-lived reformation) 4 grew ever more fanciful, 
eventually resulting in the Victorian ideal of Woman as a billowy fluff of ribbons and 
roses. This drastic contrast of silhouettes was evident in many paintings of the period, 
as Figure 1 illustrates. This sartorial division mirrored a deeper division that was 
increasingly defining the sexes: the notion of "separate spheres." As work became 
respectable for men, women were increasingly confined to the household where they 
were glorified as self-sacrificing care-takers, the family's moral conscience, and keepers 
of all things lovely. Valerie Steele describes the "cult of female beauty" or "cult of true 
womanhood": "In the nineteenth century, women were widely regarded as both 'the 
ornamental sex' and the morally superior sex. They were supposedly drawn 'naturally' 
toward both the beautiful and the good" (Steele, Fashion and Eroticism 107-108). 

Other historians relate this feminine ideal to the upheavals of the Industrial 
Revolution. Historian Dorothy Brown writes that "the cult of true womanhood was 
the defense of nineteenth-century Americans against the incursions of industrialism. 
Woman was the anchor in a world of change. Though a 'hostage in the home,' her 
virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity provided a comforting surety 
to anxious husbands and children" (29-30). Lois Banner argues that the doctrine of 
separate spheres solidified during the eighteenth century when "some area of security 
[had] been needed to offset the unsettling experiences of industrialization and 



31 
urbanization, violent labor conflict, declining religious faith, increasing crime, and 
periodic economic depression" (105). Women provided this security both 
transcendentally, through their "innate" virtue, and corporeally, through their heaps of 
ornamental garb. 

Thus the traditional notion of fashion as superfluous, sumptuous, and 
ornamental persisted, though it began to distinguish an exclusively feminine 
undertaking. In fact, as Elizabeth Wilson writes, fashion became almost synonymous 
with woman: 

The social and economic roles of men and women began to 
diverge more sharply; by the early nineteenth century women's role in 
society was narrowing, dress began to distinguish gender in more 
exaggerated ways, and fashion was now no longer, as it had been in the 
aristocratic courts of the seventeenth century, simply a priceless frame 
for female beauty. Something more subtle occurred; woman and 
costume together created femininity. (29) 

The comic from an 1899 Life magazine [Figure 2} provides a particularly unsettling 

illustration of this equation of woman with adornment. The "surprise of marriage" 

alluded to in the comic's title refers to the groom's realization that he fell in love with 

nothing but artifice. 

We might see the "Great Masculine Renunciation" as an attempt to eliminate 

ornament, irrationality, artifice, and excess— in short, fetishism— for the serious-minded, 

practical professional . The sensual, irrational domain of fashion threatened to upset 

the rational, quantifiable, increasingly ergonomic characterization of the workplace. 

Literary rhapsodies of the late Nineteenth century represented feminine frills' potential 

to enrapture the male imagination. Flaubert's Madame Bovary, for example, enlists 



32 
fetishiscic descriptions of Emma Bovary's clothing to portray the desire Charles feels for 
her. Mallarme's passion for feminine ornament resulted in his editorship of La Derniere 
Mode, a fashionable ladies' magazine in 1874. Under a series of pseudonyms ("Miss 
Satin," "Marasquin," and "Marguerite de Ponty" to name a few) Mallarme is thought to 
have written the magazine's entire contents for the eight issues of his editorship. Mary 
Lewis Shaw examines the "simultaneously sublime and frivolous language of La 
Derniere Mode, " suggesting that the journal manifests a fascination with the fetishistic 
details of women's adornment. (Shaw 47). Examining the magazines, Sima Godfrey 
writes that "the splendid, fashionable world that Mallarme conjured forth in issue after 
issue of La Derniere Mode is a world of tantalizing surfaces, where words share in the 
dazzle of jewels, the delicacy of lace, the soft transparency of feathers, the flutter of 
fans, and the bewitching insignificance of bibelots — the very images, that is, that 
haunt Mallarme's poems" (Godfrey 762-63). Flaubert and Mallarme, through their 
exalted descriptions of feminine fashions, attest to the widening gulf between masculine 
and feminine attire, a gulf bridged by a uniquely masculine figure in their midst, the 
dandy. 
A Dandy Mediator 

The details of adornment played a significant role in the works of another 
French writer, Charles Baudelaire. But Baudelaire's deployment of fashion differs 
significantly from Flaubert's or Mallarme's "chaotic-exotic" rhapsodies. Baudelaire 
indeed rhapsodizes over the details of adornment, yet he introduces a mediating figure: 
a male dandy. We might even say that the male dandy is Baudelaire's object of 



33 
affection, rather than the female coquette. This change of emphasis proves highly 

significant to Baudelaire's revolutionary embracement of modernity. As Johnathan 
Mayne writes in his introduction to Baudelaire's Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 
"{Baudelaire} was living at a time when artistic anarchy and its natural counterpart, 
artistic puritanism, were both rampant; when the 'great tradition' had been lost, and 
the new tradition had not yet been discovered" (Mayne xii). From the perspective of 
fashion and design, Mallarme's grande coquette embodies the "artistic anarchy," while 
Baudelaire's flaneur ushers in the "new tradition." 

Baudelaire's motivation for praising the details of feminine fashion lies in his 
radical theory that "beauty is always and inevitably of a double composition. . . made 
up of an eternal, invatiable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to 
determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element [defined by} ... the age, its 
fashions, its morals, its emotions" (Baudelaire 3). Baudelaire embraces the ever- 
changing frivolities of fashion because they emphasize the historical, tangible, bodily 
aspect of beauty typically neglected or derided by what he calls che "academic theory of 
an unique and absolute beauty." He writes that this historical notion of beauty 
represents a "break with the academic error." He argues for an immediate, sensory 
experience of beauty in even the most mundane artifacts of everyday life, opposing the 
traditional Romantic aesthetic represented by Shelley's claim that "A poet participates 
in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and 
place and number are not" (Shelley 977). On the contrary, Baudelaire's hero, "the 
painter of modern life," "makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element 



34 
it may contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the transitory" 
(Baudelaire 12). He represents a decisive break with the lofty academic tradition, and 
instead manifests an "excessive love of visible, tangible things, condensed to their 
plastic state," and a "repugnance for things that form the impalpable kingdom of the 
metaphysician" (9). 

Baudelaire's hero— alternately termed the "painter of modern life," the dandy, or 
the flaneur— observes and praises the frivolities of fashion, but he himself shies from 
passing trends and excessive ornamentation. Rather, his attire betrays an elegant 
austerity and simplicity. His "solitary profession is elegance," and he is "in love with 
distinction above all things" (26,27). Ironically, his love of simplicity is itself excessive, 
and Baudelaire likens his "doctrine of elegance and originality" to "the strictest 
monastic rule." "In truth," he writes, "I was not altogether wrong to consider 
dandyism as a kind of religion." The dandy, even as he represents the modern, rational 
values heralded by Baudelaire establishes "a new kind of aristocracy," demonstrating 
that "there is a grandeur in all follies, an energy in all excess. A weird kind of 
spiritualist, it must be admitted!" (28). 

When it comes to defining the dandy, historians offer descriptions ranging from 
the austere to the extravagant. I argue that the dandy's uniqueness lies in precisely this 
combination of democratic austerity and decadent extravagance. Though "dandyism" 
as a concept has evolved considerably from its inception in the early 19th century (for 
example, any contemporary man who sports an ascot is given the title), I think it is 
important to isolate the historically specific origins of the term and view its subsequent 



35 
uses as particular appropriations. The original dandy, Beau Brummell, distinguished 

himself by his reasonable, immaculately tailored suits and unreasonable attention to 

particular details. For example, his cravat demanded an excessive attention— it had to 

be heavily starched and tied just-so. Likewise, his boots were immaculately polished. 

Ellen Moers writes that "Asked for the secret of his highly polished boots, [Brummell] 

replied that for blacking he never used anything but the froth of champagne" (Moers 

31). Similarly, another legend tells of Brummell's hours-long cravat-tying sessions. In 

fact, Brummell's life is rife with such tales of excess— excesses that signified a particular 

aristocratic deportment , rather than lavish clothing, that set him apart from the masses 

of men. Max Beerbohm writes that "In certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid 

perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr. 

Brummell's miracles" (Moers 34). His clothing was not extravagant, though his 

attitude was. "His was a costume, then, which relied for its effect on the manner and 

bearing of its wearer. Long hours of concentration and preparation, of finicky attention 

to detail, wree required to produce its desired simplicity. The end result was a general 

appearance 'similar to that of every other gentleman'" (Moers 35). 

Popular literature of the Nineteenth century was quick to satirize the dandy's 

excesses. Pelham, or the Adventures of a Gentleman, George Bulwer-Lytton's society novel 

of 1828, describes an aging dandy reflecting on his innate refinement that once assured 

his social standing among England's elite. The repining Mr. Russelton laments, "I 

came into the world with an inordinate love of glory, and a great admiration for the 

original; these propensities might have made me a Shakespeare— they did more, they 



36 
made me a Russelton!" He recounts a series of childhood revolts against that 
indistinguishable beast he discerned even as an eight year old: the vulgar. As he 
matured, this revolt became his raison d'etre: 

As I grew up, my notions expanded. I gave myself, without restraint, to 
the ambition that burnt within me— I cut my old friends, who were 
rather envious than emulous of my genius, and I employed three 
tradesmen to make my gloves— one for the hand, a second for the 
fingers, and a third for the thumb'. (Bulwer-Lytton 130) 

This literary parody of one man's excess paints a strikingly accurate portrait of the 
English Dandy of the early nineteenth century. Bulwer himself confessed that Mr. 
Russelton was a thinly disguised Beau Brummel, the forefather of all English dandies. 
In this brief reflection, the aging Mr. Russelton pinpoints the English dandy's 
defining characteristics that constitute his unique response to the problems of aesthetic 
distinction in a modern age of democracy, industrialization, and mass culture. The 
English dandy represents an unprecedented nexus between the seemingly indissoluble 
oppositions that characterize modernity (antiquity vs. modernity, art vs. science, 
aristocracy vs. democracy). 5 Opposing the glorious and the original to the vulgar, 
Russelton reaffirms the traditional ancient/modern binary and seems to favor the side of 
the ancient, as glory and originality traditionally distinguish characteristics of courtly life 
before the popular uprisings. Yet his proclamation that innate good taste makes him a 
Russelton and not a Shakespeare defies both the democratic ideal that men achieve 
greatness only through work (as with Shakespeare) and the aristocratic code of social- 
rank-by-birth. Unlike the aristocracy, which he begrudges, Russelton attributes his 
societal prominence to aesthetic choices, initiating the decidedly modern notion that one 



37 
creates oneself by consuming and artfully displaying commodities. Even during his 
lifetime, Brummell was considered an "artist" of the self. Max Beerbohm declared of 
Brummell's status as an artist: "no poet nor cook nor sculptor, ever bore that title more 
worthily than he" (Moers 34). 

Russelton's proud declaration that he employs three tradesmen to make his 
gloves gives us a greater insight into the dandy's particular definitions of the glorious, 
the original, and the vulgar. A dependence on three tailors to make one pair of gloves 
reflects an obsessive aestheticization of use-value and efficiency. Division of labor was 
commonplace in the manufacturing centers of the nineteenth century. But according 
to the nineteenth-century arbiters of taste, mechanized manufacturing belonged to the 
factory; glorious and original clothing involved another process altogether. If 
elaborately embellished gowns represented the "glorious," their production involved 
women who tacked on ornament after ornament, lacking a common vision of the 
garment's final design, a prime example of the nineteenth century "chaotic-exotic." 
This process represented the artful antithesis of the male tailoring typically regarded as 
mechanized and dull. That is, until the dandy arrived. 

The dandy glorified the ideals of efficiency and function in clothing, and this 
ironic move constituted his originality. By employing the best hand-making tailor, 
best finger-making tailor, and best thumb-making tailor, Russelton fetishizes efficiency. 
As such, the dandy represents the "return of the repressed": the frivolity and fetishism 
suppressed by the Great Masculine Renunciation resurfaces in the dandy's obsessive 
aesthetic. This meeting of previously antithetical concepts— art and science, fetish and 



38 

function— constitutes a significant precedent in the establishment of a modern aesthetic 
popularized decades later under modernism. 

In a culture that continues to oppose fashion and utility, it is no surprise that 
the dandy is typically equated with the festooned fop who is, in fact, his opposite. 
Popular opinion reflects the vague notion that the dandy is a man distinguished by 
fashion— thus he must be an effeminite fop. Webster's Dictionary reflects this common 
misconception, listing coxcomb and dandy as synonyms for fop. This misidentification 
persists because Western society continues to assume that fashion is a feminine 
enterprise marked by a rapidly changing succession of impractical, uncomfortable, but 
often beautiful, forms. By contrast, male attire— practical, dark, and boring— remains 
immune to the follies of fashion. The dandy represents a troublesome anomaly in this 
sexual taxonomy. 

James Laver's Dandies begins by noting that "even serious works of costume 
history" often conflate dandies, fops, and beaux, but counters that "We shall never 
understand dandyism unless we realize that whatever else it was it was the repudiation 
of fine feathers" (9-10). Indeed, the dandy might be defined by his revolt against the 
vulgar excesses of ornament that characterized courtly dress. Although he devoted 
considerable attention to his dress and toilet, he concentrated on cut, quality, and 
cleanliness rather than showy fabrics, lavish accessories, and cosmetics. Laver quotes 
Brummell, "No perfumes. . . but very fine linen, plenty of it, and country-washing. If 
John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well-dressed; but either too stiff, 
too tight, or too fashionable" (Laver 21). Thus the dandy confesses his excessive effort 



39 

not to appear excessive— the paradoxical affirmation of modern elegance. 

Appropriating the Dandy: Ornament and Crime 

In his 1908 manifesto "Ornament and Crime," architect, theorist, and pioneer 
of the Modern Movement, Adolf Loos, heralded the English gentleman as the 
quintessential example of the modern aesthetic. In this hyperbolic battlecry, Loos uses 
an evolutionary model to argue that as man grows more civilized, he learns to abandon 
his childish urges to ornament. Characteristically unambiguous, Loos proclaims "The 
evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects" (20). 
Though Loos never explicitly referred to Beau Brummell, his descriptions of the 
idealized English gentleman leave little question that his model was indeed Brummell. 
In his essay "Men's Fashion," Loos isolates precisely Brummell's defining dictum : "an 
article of clothing is modern when the wearer stands out as little as possible at the 
center of culture, on a specific occasion, in the best society. This is a very English axiom 
to which every fashionable intellectual would probably agree" (12). Ironically, Loos 
himself commits the common nominal error, contrasting this English ideal with the 
German dandy "whose clothing serves only to distinguish him from his environment." 
Continuing, Loos describes the elaborately dressed fops and trend-following "darlings 
of fashion" that common opinion often mistook for dandies. 

In an insightful article tracing the origins of the Modern Movement's 
"subjugation of mankind's expression to an ideal of uniform perfection," Jules Lubbock 
concurs that Brummell provided Loos's inspiration: "Adolf Loos, although he never 
mentioned Beau Brummell by name, brought the dandiacal style of dress into the 



40 

mainstream of twentieth-century architecture and theory" (Lubbock 43). In fact, Loos 
himself— like Baudelaire— imitated the dandy's sartorial ideal. He employed English 
tailors to make multiple copies of smartly-fitted, dark suits, and was reputed to devote 
an inordinate amount of time to personal cleanliness. 

Its hyperbole aside, "Ornament and Crime" represents an unprecedented 
theorization of a modern aesthetic. Loos specifically argues that a lack of ornament 
distinguishes the modern style. This declaration, he writes, saddens his public who 
laments the age's inability to produce a new ornament— they ask him, "Every age had 
its style, is our age alone to be refused a style? By style, people meant ornament. Then 
I said: Weep not! See, therein lies the greatness of our age, that it is incapable of 
producing a new ornament. We have outgrown ornament; we have fought our way 
through to freedom from ornament" (20). Like his predecessor, the English dandy, 
Loos bridges the traditionally incompatible discourses of style and function. For Loos, 
function is style. 

Ornament must disappear from modern style, Loos argues, because it represents 
an inefficient, impractical concept of beauty. In his characteristically positivistic 
perspective, Loos argues that ornament— adding hours to the worker's task yet serving 
no purpose— represents wasted labor: "Omission of ornament results in a reduction in 
the manufacturing time and an increase in wages. . . . Ornament is wasted labour 
power and hence wasted health. It has always been so" (22). Modernized, industrial, 
Western nations (Loos cites England and America) have internalized this lesson and in 
turn, grow wealthier while degenerate, artisinal, Eastern nations (Loos cites China and 






41 
Austria) continue to value ornament, and even subsidize it with state funds. Loos 
explains that such backward attitudes retard Austria's modernization, causing 
irrepairable damage to the finances, culture and "health" of the nation. 

Prefiguring the "engineer aesthetic" of the Dadaist avant-garde, Loos contrasts 
the artist of yesteryear with the worker of modernity. 6 "The artist has always stood at 
the forefront of mankind full of vigour and health. But the modern ornamentalist is a 
straggler or a pathological phenomenon" (22). He compares the "Chinese carver" who 
spends sixteen hours decorating a cigarette case to the "American worker" who spends 
eight hours making a smooth case that functions perfectly and costs the same. 
Significantly, Loos's observation equates the "artist" with the past, the antiquated, the 
obsolete. Faced with the demands of an industrialized, democratic society, the "artist" 
recedes and the "worker" emerges. The artist remains tied to the decadent values of 
the ancien regime through the excessive amount of time he takes to produce something 
that has no practical value, other than a vaguely defined "cultivation of joy." 

Rather than denigrating this ornamental "cultivation of joy" as superfluous, 
Loos counters that the unadorned object, to the modern eye, cultivates precisely this 
sentiment; it is not the esoteric nature of aesthetic pleasure that piques Loos, but the 
outmoded source of that pleasure: 

I don't accept the objection that ornament heightens a cultivated 
person's joy in life, don't accept the objection contained in the words: 
'But if the ornament is beautiful!' Ornament does not heighten my joy 
in life or the joy in life of any cultivated person. If I want to eat a piece 
of gingerbread I choose one that is quite smooth and not a piece 
representing a heart or a baby or a rider, which is covered all over with 
ornaments. The man of the fifteenth century won't understand me. But 
all modern people will. The advocate of ornament believes that my urge 



42 

for simplicity is in the nature of a mortification. No, respected professor 
at the school of applied art, I am not mortifying myself! (21) 

Far from representing a denial of sensual pleasures, Loos's preference for the unadorned 

reflects a passion for streamlined forms, & delight in simplicity. 

The dandy's unprecedented equation of beauty with unadorned, functional 

clothing overturns the prevailing ideal that women should personify their husbands' 

wealth and success through lavish sartorial and domestic display. Published in 1899, 

Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class labels this phenomenon "conspicuous 

consumption," explaining that society's increasing acceptance and approbation of 

productive work for gentlemen relegates the spheres of leisure and consumption to 

women: "By virtue of its descent from a patriarchal past, our social system makes it 

the woman's function in an especial degree to put in evidence her household's ability to 

pay." Veblen reiterates the typically Victorian notion that the woman's "sphere is 

within the household, which she should 'beautify,' and of which she should be the 'chief 

ornament'" (180). In Veblen's scheme, ornament symbolizes useless, impractical, 

sometimes even masochistic expenditure and display. "To apply this generalisation to 

women's dress, and put the matter in concrete terms: the high heel, the skirt, the 

impracticable bonnet, the corset, and the general disregard of the wearer's comfort 

which is an obvious feature of all civilised women's apparel ... are evidence that . . . 

she is still the man's chattel" (181-182). Thus the husband takes great pain to make 

the money, and the wife takes great pain to show it off. In effect, the woman becomes 

the man's ornament— the gentleman attends societal functions dressed in the pragmatic 



43 
uniform of work, but remains adorned by the bountifully decorated woman on his arm. 

The more sumptuous and impractical her attire, the more affluent the man. 

This gendered separation of production and consumption is, of course, rife with 

feminist implications. Though Veblen's pseudo-scientific analysis engenders 

ambiguous, at best, pronouncements of the "woman problem," it does identify the 

correlation between useful employment and human dignity: "These offices [of 

conspicuous consumption} are the conventional marks of the un-free, at the same time 

that they are incompatible with the human impulse to purposeful activity" (358). 

Further complicating Veblen's theses regarding ornament and subjugation were 

statements from women of the working class adding that many women not only bore 

the role of ornamenting the house, but also of running the house. Dorthy Dix's 1898 

newspaper article on "The American Wife" laments the difficulty of this dual duty: "It 

is when one attempts to combine the useful and the ornamental— to be a Dresden 

statuette in the parlor and a reliable range in the kitchen-that the situation becomes 

trying, and calls for genuine ability" (Dix 132). Dix reminds us that for most women, 

Veblen's gendered notions of production and consumption were hardly as tidy as he 

suggests. The conspicuous consumers were also producers, only their unpaid labor was 

largely invisible in Veblen's paradigm. Still, Veblen's theory of conspicuous 

consumption reiterates the popular perception that the English dandy defied. 

Rosalind Williams argues that "[Veblen's] analysis was becoming obsolete at the 

moment he enunciated it" (106). Intermingling with Veblen's bourgeois model of 

consumption were alternative models. The dandy represented one such alternative, she 



44 
argues, as he rebelled against the ostentatious, conspicuous style of the bourgeoisie, 
even as he expressed a disdain for the "masses." Williams argues that the dandy 
represents an "elitist style of consumption," initiated "when Beau Brummell and other 
dandies responded to what they considered to be the encroachments of bourgeois and 
even mass vulgarity by reasserting traditional aristocratic virtues of daring, elan, and 
poise" (111). Williams argues that the theory of dandyism contradicted the practice: 
"Of all the paradoxes of dandyism, none is more striking than the way the loftiest 
theories of spiritual superiority all depended on the vulgar act of shopping" (119). 
Ultimately, for Williams, the extravagant spending and enormous debt incurred by 
several notable dandies preclude his recuperation as a creative mass consumer. Her 
summary of the dandy's failed experiment in consumption reveals the narrow premise 
that undergirded her analysis all along: "failure is inherent in the attempt to satisfy the 
cravings of the spirit through matter" (145). Ultimately, Williams adheres to the 
illiberal view that conveys "a feeling of the general malaise of materialism,"— the view 
reproached by Daniel Miller in his studies of material culture. Though Williams is 
certainly accurate in identifying the catastrophic outcome of the dandy's excessive 
spending and lack of employment, she overlooks his enormous contribution to an 
aesthetic of modernity evident in his appropriation by Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Loos. 
Toward a "Modern Aesthetic" 

Clearly, the dandy's iconoclastic use of dress represents more than a sartorial 
reformation. Indeed, in the discourse surrounding the English dandy, we find the seeds 
of modernity's central debates. His unique aesthetic represents an original response to 






45 
several seminal questions: How does industrialization affect a culture's aesthetic ideals? 
Does industrialization enable the democratization of culture? How does fashion 
represent a creative medium for the masses? 

Baudelaire's use of the dandy to represent a modern ideal positions the dandy 
on the cusp of what would be termed the "mass culture" debate at the beginning of the 
Twentieth century. Chronologically, the English Dandy appears during the same 
decade that writers first use the term modernite to distinguish a contemporary mode of 
everyday life. 7 The Dandy represents a particular aesthetic response to the those 
transformations of everyday life. Critics identify several categories of such aesthetic 
responses, or "artistic cultures" (sometimes antagonistic, sometimes overlapping): 
modernism, the avant-garde, folk art, high art, mass art, popular art, decadence, and 
kitsch, to name a few. 8 The English Dandy bridges several of these "artistic cultures," 
incorporating effects both "high" and "low," aristocratic and democratic. In doing so, 
the Dandy bridges the "great divide" 9 and complicates the distinctions between 
modernism and mass culture. 

Whereas modernity refers to the general period of crisis represented by a series 
of dialectical conflicts dissemminating from the "great divide," modernism signifies a 
specific aesthetic response to that division. Modernity typically designates a historical 
period that begins with the French Revolution's repudiation of the ancien regime, 
reaching fruition in the across-the-board transformations of everyday life ushered in by 
the Industrial Revolution. Modern, democratic, utilitarian values began to challenge 
traditional aristocratic values, resulting in the high art/mass culture split that began to 



46 

dominate aesthetic debate. Though modernity found general expression in the eatly 

nineteenth century, modernism came into general use only in the 1920s as a sector of 
artists and critics refused traditional aesthetic forms in favor of iconoclastic, estranging 
art that grappled with the discordant conditions of modern life. As critics have noted, 
the goals of "modernism" were never clearly defined, and yield any number of internal 
contradictions. 

In Raiding the Icebox, Peter Wollen investigates modernism's complexity, yet 
Wollen's study lumps a disparate variety of artists— fashion designers, painters, writers, 
choreographers, architects— into the "modernist" category without addressing the 
inherent differences of their media, differences that affect each artist's relationship to 
mass culture. Most critics characterize modernism (or as some designate, "high" 
modernism) as antagonistic to mass culture. Despite an apparent committment to 
"progress," many modernists opposed modernity's aesthetic revolution, claiming that 
the combined forces of democracy and capitalism resulted in a new phenomenon, mass 
culture, that merely commodified art, producing an endless array of interchangable, 
banal cultural commodities, mere fodder for the capitalist machine. Adorno and 
Horkheimer's classic denunciation of the "culture industry" is often posed as the 
quintessential modernist manifesto (Adorno and Horkheimer "The Culture Industry"). 
Naremore characterizes modernism as "aggressively individualistic, contemptuous of 
bourgeois realism, and sometimes nostalgic for pre-industrial society" (10). Thus the 
question of art for the masses remained paradoxical for many modernists who 



47 
championed the destruction of the ancien regime even as they regtetted the qualitative 

loss of artisinal culture. 

Some critics distinguish a separate category (formed in opposition to "high" 
modernism) that sought a more hospitable relationship to mass culture: the historical 
avant-garde. We can posit Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin as representing the 
two opposing modernist viewpoints: Adorno categorically denounces the cultural 
products of the second industrial revolution, whereas Benjamin continually suggests 
that modern technology contains a revolutionary potential. Benjamin, then, represents 
the avant-garde perspective within modernism— his work aimed to accommodate the 
pleasures of mass culture and longed to unleash a Utopian potential that lay buried 
within the mass cultural commodity. Further, his critical method reflected an avant- 
garde penchant for experimentation, from his unorthodox objects of study to his 
collage-like method of presentation. 

In many ways, the dandy bridges distinctions between "high" and "low" culture. 
Even as he remains nostalgic for the luxuries of the aristocracy, and contemptuous of 
the bourgeoisie's supposed vulgarity, he represents the ideals of "liberty, fraternity, and 
equality." Significantly, the dandy creates himself through what Williams called the 
"vulgar act of shopping," an activity newly opened to the masses in the nineteenth 
century. Both democratic and decadent, practical and decorous, the Dandy combines 
the seemingly incongruent qualities that distinguish "high" culture and "low" culture. 
Several important modernist texts offer compelling praise of the dandy, as they describe 
a figure worthy of representing the modernist aesthetic. As we've seen, Charles 



48 
Baudelaire and Adolf Loos, anticipating many aspects of what will be called modernism 
in the 1920s, apptopriate the English Dandy to represent their emergent theories of 
modernity and aesthetics. 

A seductively methodical, yet misleading definition of modernism would 
identify its characteristics as the "modern" or "progressive" terms in modernity's 
defining conflicts: positivist rather than metaphysical, useful rather than ornamental, 
democratic rather than aristocratic, laboring rather than decadent, Western rather than 
Eastern. Yet as Peter Wollen argues, this reductionism conceals much of modernism's 
complexity and contradiction. Wollen cites examples from a variety of media to 
demonstrate the "return of the repressed" throughout modern art— the aesthetic of the 
ancien regime resurfaces in the "Oriental" fashions of Paul Poiret, the colorful palette of 
Henri Matisse, and the irrational philosophy of surrealism, to name a few. Wollen 
represents the history of modernism as a series of oscillations between "Orientalist" and 
"Americanist" impulses— from Poiret's "harem pantaloons" (Orientalist) to Chanel's 
interchangeable black "Model-T" dresses (Americanist) to Schiaparelli's shoe-shaped 
hats (Orientalist). 

Though Wollen's study brilliantly organizes a seemingly unwieldy amount and 
variety of information, it fails to adequately interrogate what distinguishes each of these 
manifestations as modern. It suggests that one can uncover the dominant Orientalist 
or Americanist impulse within a work but leaves many questions regarding any given 
work's synthesis of these two poles. And it is this synthesis, that constitutes the 
modern aesthetic's uniqueness. For even as the fabric, ornamentation, and presentation 



49 

of Poiret's harem pants alluded to an ancient past of illict sexuality and decadence, they 

represented the first pants for women— a practical, comfortable alternative to the 
bustles, corsets, and crinolines of previous decades. And even as Chanel designed the 
elegant and simple "little black dress," she adorned it with layers of superfluous 
costume jewelry. Thus, what is particularly modern about both Poiret's pants and 
Chanel's dresses is that they maintain the tension between ancient and modern, 
combining characteristics of both, resulting in more than the sum of their parts. It is 
this tension, this aesthetic of contradiction, that distinguishes the modern— a 
distinction, I argue, anticipated by the dandy. All these fashions (from the dandy's 
tailored suits and starched cravat, Poiret's harem pants, to Chanel's black dress and 
pearls) streamline the chaotic-exotic, integrating the ornamental excess into a stylized 
design. 

The "total revolution in style" that distinguished 20th century designs from 
19th century designs did indeed forge a unique aesthetic, but to argue that function 
entirely supplanted ornament fails to account for the revolutionary designs. The 
clothing designs popularized in the Twenties and Thirties under the aegis of "art deco," 
for example, emerge from the tension between ornament and function. 10 These 
designs, simultaneously simplified and lavish, pose somewhat of a problem for the 
design historian— a problem evident in the disparate book titles, The Streamlined Decade 
and A Fashion for Extravagance, for example. In fact, the clothes were streamlined and 
extravagant. Some historians draw clear distinctions between styles such as "art 
nouveau" (a highly ornamental, exotic style developed between 1890 and 1914) and 



50 
"art deco" (a sharply angular, geometric style derivative of Bauhaus principles, 
emerging after the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels 
Modernes.) Though "pure" examples of austere art deco certainly exist, most designs of 
the period appear to negotiate the two extremes, incorporating exotic or naturalistic 
motifs into a streamlined design. 

Valerie Steele disputes the myth of function often invoked to characterize 1920s 
fashion: "The new fashions in dress were not based on functionalism or common sense 
any more than avant-garde art was 'functional.' . . . The experimentation with new 
forms became increasingly common in all the arts, including the art of fashion" (Steele 
Paris Fashion 232). Steele relates the stylistic revolution of the early twentieth century 
to the rise of the fashion illustrator, an artist who emphasied the overall feeling of the 
design: "Whereas the nineteenth-century illustrator had concentrated on conveying as 
much fashion information as possible, the 'Art Deco' illustrator largely ignored details 
like buttons in favor of expressing the modern spirit of the dress" (219). The 
motivation of these modern fashion illustrators echoes the dandy's obsessive emphasis 
on design, as he opposed the chaotic craft of nineteenth-century dress production in 
favor of the elegant art of tailoring. Similarly, the fashion illustrators imposed their 
unified vision onto the fashions they were hired to illustrate, taking such liberties that 
they often transformed the clothes. As a result, they significantly influenced the 
development of modern fashion. "Indeed," Steele writes, "one has only to compare 
phorographs and Art Deco prints depicting similar clothes to see how much the 
illustrator helped create the new look" (220). It is no coincidence that particular 



51 
groups of fashion illustrators referred to one another as "Beau Brummels," 

distinguishing themselves by their own immaculate grooming and obsessive attention 

to order in design." 

The modern clothing designs typically equated with the "New Woman" of the 

1920s bridge distinctions between masculine utility and feminine frivolity, much as the 

dandy had done a century before. The transformations reflected in the attire of the 

"New Woman" resulted from a variety of social, economic, and technological causes. 

Common consensus equates the banishment of the corset with the establishment of 

women's suffrage in 1920. As the popular myth goes, women expressed their 

liberation by bobbing their hair, shortening their skirts, dancing the tango, applying 

lipstick, and smoking cigarettes. Though women's suffrage likely contributed to the 

revolution in modern fashion, the changes brought about by industrialization should 

not be underestimated. Anne Hollander addresses this relationship between 

industrialization, democratization, and aesthetic ideals: "The real modernization of 

fashion depended on a rise in the status of mass-produced machine-made garments, 

accompanying the rise in the esthetic status of all industrial design" (Hollander 143). 

She relates industrial design's infiltration of everyday life in the 20th century to men's 

tailoring in the 19th century. Both further the democratization of culture by making 

elegant design available to greater numbers of people. "From a certain distance on the 

city street, individual feminine taste could make a much more noticeable difference 

than riches or poverty did, just as with male dress. . . . This look had a striking 

similarity with the long-standing desirable looks for men — reduced, abstract, and 



52 
similar" (145). Thus, female fashions of the 1920s echo the previous century's 
revolution in male clothing. 

An interesting anomaly in the history of modernism and design concerns 
Hollywood's popularization of art deco. In Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture and 
the Movies, Donald Albrecht explores how the styles portrayed in certain Hollywood 
movies appropriated modernist designs, but to drastically opposing ends. He argues 
that modernist architecture was founded on the egalitarian, Utopian ideal of bringing 
efficient, quality design to all classes of people. 

Moviemakers, by contrast, created a Utopia of wealthy nonconformists. ... It is 
one of the ironies of the modernist movement that the cinema, the twentieth century's 
greatest egalitarian visual art form, took modern architecture's collectivist agenda and 
transformed it into a fantasy of privilege to be enjoyed only by the celluloid wealthy — 
meanwhile broadcasting that message to an audience composed of the widest segments 
of society that the architects sought to reach. (Albrecht xiii) 

Indeed, modern design in the movies becomes synonymous with Hollywood 
glamour. Far from representing modernist ideals for mass housing or factories, 
Hollywood movies typically portray high-rise apartments, nightclubs, and sophisticated 
offices in the modern style. For example, in Possessed, the streamlined, laquered designs 
of Marian's urban apartment signify her success, as they contrast sharply with the 
ornamental, mis-matched bric-a-brac that marks her girlhood home. 

Chapter 3 will examine this cinematic deployment of the modern aesthetic, 
exploring the the consequences of cinema's portrayal of everyday commodities. I 



53 
suggest that the tension between function and ornament resurfaces in cinema's tension 

between narrative and mise-en-scene, as the logic-driven narrative often competes with 

the distractions of ornamental mise-en-scene. Its fragmenting close-ups and 

enlargements leaves cinema open to charges of "fetishism," which becomes somewhat 

of a preoccupation among many film theorists. Chapter 3 will re-examine common 

theories of cinema and fetishism in light of the connections Chapter 2 has made 

between modernity and aesthetics. 

The Materials of Culture 

By examining a particular debate of fashion history, we see the invaluable 

resources offered by material culture— in this case, the literal material of culture. 

Unique in its ability to maintain tensions and display contradictions, fashion proves a 

rich subject for investigating modernity's conflicts. Elizabeth Wilson likens fashion to 

Freud's description of the unconscious: "[Like fashion, the unconscious} could contain 

mutually exclusive ideas with serenity; in it time was abolished, raging emotions were 

transformed into concrete images, and conflicts magicaly resolved by being 

metamorphosed into symbolic form" (132). Modern fashion— commencing with the 

dandy and culminating in the elegant designs of the 1920s— accomplishes this 

metamorphosis by aestheticizing use-value, and blending the hitherto incongruous 

values of beauty, pleasure, and sensuousness with utility, function, and efficiency. As 

Anne Hollander writes, "modernity requires conflict and dialectic, uneasy combination, 

ambiguity and tension." Fashion, "modern by nature. . . visually celebrates the 

irrational, preserving tension rather than seeking resolution" (34). 



54 

Central to this aestheticizing process is fetishism, a mechanism inevitable in the 
displacement of ideals onto the materials of cultute. Fashion's embodiment of desire 
will forever leave it susceptible to fetishism. The Great Masculine Renunciation, as an 
attempt to eliminate fetishism, was bound for failure; for irrationality, sensuality -- and 
indeed, reification -- are snugly woven into the materials of culture. But when we learn 
to see fetishism not as a pathological malady, but as a trope endemic to both art and 
artifact, we might come closer to understanding the "lesson of things." 

The issues uncovered in this examination of Nineteenth century material culture 
prefigure key debates about images and representation that surface in the Twentieth 
century with cinema, the industrial art par excellance. A product of both artistic and 
scientific impulses, cinema echoes the modern aesthetic anticipated by the dandy, as it 
is similarly founded on a tension of sensual desire (manifest in lavish mise-en-scene) and 
rational function (implicit in the logical requirements of narrative). The following 
chapter develops these ideas and explores particular theories of cinema that embrace 
the materiality of the image, celebrating the "attractions" of mise-en-scene . 

Notes 

1 As quoted by Susan Buck-Morss. In her article "Benjamin's Passagen-Werk: 
Redeeming Mass Culture for the Revolution," Buck-Morss writes, "Benjamin's 
understanding of commodities was not merely critical. He affirmed them as Utopian 
wish-images which 'liberated creativity from art, just as in the XVIth century the 
sciences freed themselves from philosophy' (PW, 1236, again 1249). This 
phantasmagoria of industrially-produced material objects — buildings, boulevards, all 
sorts of commodities from tour-books to toilet articles — for Benjamin was mass 
culture, and it is the central concern of the Passagen-Werk." New German Critique, v. 29, 
Spring/Summer 1983, 213. 

2 Though no one text defines the purposes, methods, or terminology of 
Material Culture, most seem to use the term "artifact" quite generally. It refers to 



55 

human-made objects (an article of clothing, a pencil sharpener, a card table, a Coke 
can) or natural objects that have been organized into human-made creations (a garden, 
a landscape, a "pet rock"). Thus all "artifacts" are not necessarily "commodities." But 
all "commodites" are necessarily "artifacts." Because my concern is with the 
commodity as artifact, I tend to use the terms interchangably. 

3 Focusing on English manifestations of the Great Masculine Renunciation, 
David Kuchta argues that accounts of the renunciation privilege the sartorial 
transformations of the bourgeoisie occurring in the late 18th and early 19th century, 
and tend to overlook the true revolution in male attire that took place after the 
Glorious Revolution of 1688. He suggests that "the great masculine renunciation of 
the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was merely an extension of a 
century-old process" whereby the aristocracy began to redefine the political legitimacy, 
inventing the "self-made man." See "The Making of the Self-Made Man: Class, 
Clothing, and English Masculinity, 1688-1832" The Sex of Things: Gender and 
Consumption in Historical Perspective. Victoria de Grazia, editor. (Berkeley: University of 
California Press, 1996) 60. 

4 Anne Hollander (among others) explains that women, too, enjoyed the simpler 
designs of the Neo-Classical trend at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Yet by 
mid-century, "paintings by Frith and indeed by Monet and Manet show groups of 
multicolored ladies blooming like varieties of flowering shrubbery among sturdy, dun- 
colored, tree-trunk-like gentlemen with distinctive faces." Anne Hollander, Sex and 
Suits (New York: Koshanda International, 1994) 98. 

5 This bifurcation of ancient and modern prompted Walter Benjamin's seminal 
article "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which examines 
modern technology's dismantling of "a number of outmoded concepts, such as 
creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery." I explore the implications of 
Benjamin's article later in the text. Walter Benjamin. "The Work of Art in the Age of 
Mechanical Reproduction." Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Braudy, Cohen (New York: 
Oxford University Press, 1999) 732. 

6 Similarly, Baudelaire contrasts his ideal, the "painter of modern life," with 
archaic notions of the "artist," preferring instead the term "man of the world.": "When 
at last I ran him to earth, I saw at once that it was not precisely an artist, but rather a 
man of the world with whom I had to do. I ask you to understand the word artist in a 
very restricted sense, and man of the world in a very broad one. By the second I mean 
a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and 
lawful reasons for all its uses; by the first, a specialist, a man wedded to his palette like 

a serf to the soil The artist lives very little, if at all, in the world of morals and 

politics." Baudelaire, 6-7. 



56 

7 Matei Calinescu writes that "the term [modernity] circulated in English at least 
since the seventeenth century. The OED records the first occurrence of 'modernity' 
(meaning 'present times') in 1627." Yet, as a means of distinguishing a specific mode of 
everyday life that contrasts with ancient grandeur, the term first appears in 1833 in 
Chateaubriand's Diary. Matei Calinescu. Five Faces of Modernity (Durham: Duke 
University Press, 1987) 42-43. 

8 James Naremore proposes that "Western society in the early decades of the 
twentieth century seems to have split into an unsettled mixture of at least six different 
artistic cultures, each producing different kinds of images, stories, music, and what Carl 
Schorske calls 'intellectual objects.'" He goes on to enumerate: high art, modernist art, 
avant-garde art, folk art, popular art, and mass art. James Naremore and Patrick 
Brantlinger, eds., Modernity and Mass Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 
1991). In a similar survey, Matei Calinescu identifies "five faces of modernity": 
modernism, avant-garde, decadence, kitsch, and postmodernism. Matei Calinescu. 
Five Faces of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987). 

9 Andreas Huyssen has nominated this split "the great divide," noting that "the 
opposition between modernism and mass culture has remained amazingly resilient over 
the decades." Andreas Huyssen, After The Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, 
Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), vii. 

10 See for example Brandon Kershner's introduction to Joyce and Popular Culture, 
which explores the complex (and in many cases, accommodating) relationship between 
modernism and mass culture. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996). 

11 Robert Heide and John Gilman specify that "The term art deco is derived 
from the name of the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratits et 
Industries Modernes. This mid- 1920s world's fair of innovative decorative arts and 
architecture is generally acknowledged as the starting point from which neoteric styles 
of design began to take firm hold in both the European and American marketplace. In 
the late 1920s and early 1930s, the advanced concepts developed at the 1925 
exposition were most often referred to as simply "modern" or "modernism." Other 
descriptive terms used during those early years were Art Moderne, Jazz Moderne, and 
the New York Style, the latter referring to the city's craze for higher and higher 
skyscrapers. It was only in 1966 when the Paris Musee des Arts Decoratifs held its 
retrospective of design styles emanating from the 1925 exposition that the catchall 
expression Art Deco began to come into popular usage in describing the revival of 
interest in that form. Popular Art Deco (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991) 15. 

12 Valerie Steele quotes Vogue editor Edna Wollman Chase who writes of the 
illustrators: "A certain dandyism of the dress and manner. . . Makes them a school. 
Their hat brims are a wee bit broader than the modish ones of the day and the hats are 
worn with a slight tilt, a very slight tilt but enough to give the impression of 



57 

fastidiousness. Their coats are pinched in just a little at the waist, their ties are spotless 
and their boots immaculate. A bracelet slipping down over a wrist at an unexpected 
moment betrays a love of luxury. The great difference between these Beau Brummells 
and their ancient namesake is that . . . They are also hard workers." (Steele Paris 
Fashion 224). 



CHAPTER 3 
TOWARD A FETISH-FRIENDLY FEMINISM 

To demonstrate the identity of the artistic and scientific uses of 
photography which heretoforr usually were separated will be one 
of the revolutionary functions of the film. 

— Walter Benjamin 

We are witnessing the birth of an extraordinary art. The only truly 
modern art perhaps . . . because it is simultaneously and uniquely the 
offspring of both technology and human ideals. 

— Louis Delluc 

Cinema, like the nineteenth century dandy of Chapter 1, reflects a dialectical 
foundation: it emerges from a meeting of aesthetics and industry. Like the dandy, 
cinema is a product of modern technology— a democratic medium driven by reason and 
function— even as it incorporates an irrational, fanciful element of "Imagination." It is 
no coincidence, then, that the same debates characterize the emergence of cinema as 
characterized the dandy: the possibilities of mass art, the politics of aesthetic pleasure, 
the reconciliation of abstract ideas and material objects, and the gendered implications 
of mixing aesthetics (associated with ornament, coded as feminine) and industry 
(associated with function, coded as masculine). Chapter 3 thus continues to examine 
commodities as material culture, exploring how cinema develops as an ideal medium to 
display consumer goods even as (or perhaps because) it becomes one such object itself. 

Tom Gunning has pointed to the continued presence of the exhibitionistic style 
of early cinema— even in classical Hollywood narrative, that genre supposedly hostile to 



58 



59 
excess and indeterminacy. This tendency certainly appears in my areas of interest, 

Hollywood cinema of the 1920s and 30s (which typically relied on a tight narrative to 
motivate its continuity editing) and the European narrative cinema of the period (which 
sometimes strayed from strict continuity editing, but nevertheless converged on a 
continuous narrative). But the sometimes converging, sometimes competing, forces of 
narrative and mise-en-scene that orient this chapter are evident in all narrative cinema. 
This tension emerges from the very nature of cinematic representation, as its larger- 
than-life renderings of the ordinary constantly threaten to distract the viewer from the 
ongoing narrative. 

Cinema— one of the most significant development of material culture to date- 
has inspired theorists to analyze its foundations and explicitly address the implications 
of "art in the age of mechanical reproduction." Part 1 of this chapter engages some of 
those theories, exploring debates among certain writers of the Frankfurt school who 
observe cinema's dismantling of the artistic tradition. Walter Benjamin and Theodor 
Adorno both address cinema's revolutionary status as mass art, a form that overturns 
art's traditional function of encouraging spiritual contemplation and aesthetic 
fulfillment. Despite their initial agreement that mass art represents a radically new 
phenomenon, they come to drastically different conclusions regarding the potentials of 
cinema as mass art. I explore Benjamin's complex theory of cinema as "distraction," 
arguing that it attempts to bridge the gulf between aesthetics and science, redefining 
aesthetic value in the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin suggests that cinema 
has the potential both to lull and awaken the masses, encapsulating the dual nature of 



60 
fetishism as both knowledge ("I know very well") and disavowal (". . . but all the 

same"). 

After evaluating Benjamin's and Adorno's generalizations about cinema as mass 
art and exploring the implications for mise-en-scene, I focus on the specific, irrational 
pleasures of cinematic display, exploring particular theorists who engage the fetishism 
of objects that cinema uniquely represents. Part 2 examines the Impressionist notion 
(later appropriated by the surrealists) of photogenie, a radical, intrusive position that 
heralds mise-en-scene 's capacity to disrupt the narrative through its irrational, visual 
pleasures. I suggest an affinity between Benjamin's theory of cinema as "distraction" 
and the surrealists' accounts of mise-en-scene' s propensity to distract the viewer from 
what is usually considered cinema's raison d'etre, the narrative. 

In Part 3, 1 explore the implications of these fetishistic theories of cinema on 
feminist film theory's almost universal hostility toward fetishism. I consider how the 
opposition between narrative and mise-en-scene figures in certain Hollywood movies of 
the 1920s and 30s. This period proves a particularly rich field for investigating these 
issues, as it initiates Hollywood's explicit engagement with consumerism and begins to 
depict the "New Woman," linking her fantasies and desires to the commodities it 
showcases. I examine several explanations that might account for the particular 
manifestations of cinematic display in these films. This conflation of women and 
consumerism ultimately uncovers issues of visual pleasure and fetishism. Developing 
the suggestions of Chapter 2, 1 continue to challenge monolithic uses of fetishism to 
diagnose the ills of modern culture. Theories of mise-en-scene, for example, suggest that 



61 
"fetishism" may constitute one of cinema's inherent assets. Both the surrealists and 
Benjamin celebrate cinema's fragmenting concentration on particular details and its 
ability to display everyday objects in an extraordinary manner. In addition, I introduce 
Barthes's notion of the "filmic" and Gunning's notion of "the cinema of attractions"- 
two perspectives that further complicate feminist explanations of fetishism in dominant 
cinema and point instead toward the liberating potentials of cinematic spectacle. 
The Frankfurt School and Theories of Mass Art 
The writings of Adorno and Benjamin on cinema and the "culture industry" 
represent a canonized entry-point into studies of mass culture. Adorno and 
Horkheimer's classic denunciation, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass 
Deception," and Benjamin's classic celebration, "The Work of Art in the Age of 
Mechanical Reproduction," neatly isolate the defining characeristics of cinema's 
dismantling of art's traditional functions and appear to choose sides. Adorno and 
Horkheimer declare that "movies. . . need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that 
they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they 
deliberately produce" (Adorno 3D- Benjamin, on the other hand, identifies film as 
mechanical reproduction's "most powerful agent" which has the potential to "lead to a 
tremendous shattering of tradition. . . and renewal of mankind" (Benjamin 734). 
Though they agree that cinema emerges at the intersection of art and commodity, 
Adorno and Benjamin arrive at drastically different conclusions regarding cinema's 
potential to positively impact the masses. For each, cinema's uniqueness lies in the 
scientific and artistic tendencies that collide in mise-en-scene. 



62 
For Adorno, cinema's implication in "the culture industry" unequivocally aligns 
it with the enemy: "the absolute power of capitalism" (30). With capitalism as its 
driving force, cinema can only propagate dominant ideology, insuring the continuity of 
pliable capitalist subjects who go to the movies to momentarily escape from — but 
never question — their everyday lives. Popular cinema achieves this goal through its 
reliance on quickly-moving images (anchored to a fast-moving narrative) that deny 
spectators the luxury of contemplating the scene unfolding before them. Cinema 
"leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable 
to respond within the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without 
losing the thread of the story" (34). Thus the culture industry functions as a giant 
factory, producing identical, unthinking capitalist subjects. Far from representing a 
creative outlet, cinema only reinscribes the workers' thoughtless labor. "The might of 
industrial society is lodged in men's minds," Adorno writes. "The entertainments 
manufacturers know that their products will be consumed with alertness even when the 
customer is distraught, for each of them is a model of the huge economic machinery 
which has always sustained the masses, whether at work or at leisure - which is akin to 
work" (34). Thus Adorno ultimately denies the possibility of cinema as mass art - as a 
product of the "culture industry," cinema promotes absent-minded passivity, art's 
antithesis. 

In his analysis of cinema's stupifying capacity, Adorno manifests a particular 
ambivalence about the uniqueness of cinematic mise-en-scene . He is anxious about 
cinema's ability to "flawlessly. . . duplicate empirical objects," because it enables "the 



63 
illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that 

presented on the screen" (34). Yet as he continues, we see that Adorno's notion of 
mise-en-scene as the accomplice of a naive realism remains tied to narrative and montage, 
those aspects of cinema strengthened with the coming of sound: "This purpose has 
been furthered by mechanical reproduction since the lightning takeover by the sound 
film." Thus mise-en-scene is not necessarily the enemy. Rather, the enemy is a mise-en- 
scene that fails to identify itself as such and serves only to forward the narrative. In fact, 
Adorno locates what might be a germ of hope in foregrounding the fragments that 
constitute the "movie world": "Those who are so absorbed by the world of the movie - 
- by its images, gestures, and words -- that they are unable to supply what really makes 
it a world, do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during a 
screening" (34). The film represents the "triumph of invested capital," because it 
"integrates all the elements of production" (images, gestures, words) into a single 
narrative unity that "stunts. . . the consumer's powers of imagination and spontaneity" 
(34). Adorno seems to imply that mise-en-scene should not always serve the unfolding 
narrative -- rather, the viewer should enjoy the luxury of dwelling on the individual 
fragments ("images, gestures, and words") that together form the "integrated" product. 
Benjamin's theories regarding the potentials of mise-en-scene in "The Work of Art 
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" are no less ambivalent. In fact, Benjamin 
seems to argue that cinema's potential lies in both the disorienting powers of mise-en- 
scene (hinted at by Adorno), and the constant movement of narrative and montage 
(distrusted by Adorno). In "Impressionism, surrealism, and film theory: path 



64 
dependence, or how a tradition in film theory gets lost," Robert Ray argues that 
Adorno, in a letter rejecting Benjamin's proposed Arcades Project, succinctly 
summarizes cinema's dual nature: '"Your study,' Adorno wrote, in the now famous 
passage, 'is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism'" (Ray 67). Cinema, Ray 
argues, combines fetishistic attention to mise-en-scene (magic) with factory-modeled 
production and logically-motivated narrative (positivism). In this chapter, I explore 
cinema's "magic" side, re-examining the "lost tradition" that celebrates the enchanting 
powers of the cinematic image. 

Benjamin's emphasis on cinematic enchantment can be traced to his notion of 
the "optical unconscious" (introduced in "A Small History of Photography," 1931). 
Through the scientific possibilities of cinema (e.g., the close-up, enlargements, slow 
motion) we have access to reality as we've never seen it. For example, cinema can 
display the most mundane human gestures in a magnificent light: "The act of reaching 
for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on 
between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here 
the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions 
and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The 
camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious 
impulses" (Benjamin 746). This notion of "unconscious optics" remains exclusive to 
cinema, for unlike other art forms, cinema relies upon photography. "As compared with 
painting, filmed behavior lends itself more readily to analysis because of its 
incomparably more precise statements of the situation. In comparison with the stage 



65 
scene, the filmed behavior item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be 
isolated more easily" (746). Thus the technological possibilities of cinema promote 
both scientific inquiry (exhibiting the physics of human movement) and artistic 
innovation (encouraging new "ways of seeing"). Benjamin writes, "This circumstance 
[of unconscious optics] derives its chief importance from its tendency to promote the 
mutual penetration of art and science. Actually, of a screened behavior item which is 
nearly brought out in a certain situation, like a muscle of a body, it is difficult to say 
which is more fascinating, its artistic value or its value for science" (746). 

In attaching a progressive semblance to the interpenetration of scientific and 
artistic purposes, Benjamin differentiates himself from the position Adorno represents. 
Adorno seems to argue that cinema's scientific tendency to flawlessly duplicate objects 
conceals its artistic tendency -- herein lies the danger of cinema. The audience fails to 
perceive cinema as artifice, and instead equates the "outside world" with the "screen 
world." But for Benjamin, there is no separating the "scientific" from the "artistic" 
impulses of cinema -- this fusion is precisely what distinguishes its uniqueness. The 
disorienting effects of cinematic photography (with its close-ups, fragmentations, and 
literally "larger than life" representations of objects) betray its artistic purposes from its 
very inception. Rendering a movement in slow-motion, for example, far exceeds 
scientific implications for a study of motion: "slow motion not only presents familiar 
qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones 'which, far from 
looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, 
supernatural motions'" (746). 



66 

But despite his emphasis on cinematic mise-en-scene, Benjamin ultimately locates 
cinema's revolutionary potential in "distraction," or the "shock effect of the film." 
Unlike Adorno, Benjamin doesn't want to return to an aesthetic of contemplation. His 
emphasis on mise-en-scene, then, is tied to its application within montage. The images 
embody a revolutionary potential only when they are chopped up and reassembled. 
Film achieves this "shock effect" through the constant movement of images, jokingly 
juxtaposed. This jarring, discontinuous effect drastically contrasts the traditional 
reception of art, as exemplified in painting: "The painting invites the spectator to 
contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before 
the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is 
already changed. It cannot be arrested" (748). The same phenomenon that elicited 
Adorno's anxiety, forms the basis of Benjamin's Utopian theory. 

Thus "distraction and concentration form polar opposites." The shock effect has 
revolutionary implications-it represents a break with the "outmoded concepts" that 
anchor traditional art ("creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery"-qualities 
Benjamin associated with the Fascist propaganda machine) and instead reflects the lived 
conditions of the newly created masses that peopled the modern city. "The greatly 
increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of perception," 
Benjamin writes. "For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the 
turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, 
alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile 
appropriation" (748-49). Analyzing Benjamin's theory, Peter Wollen writes that "the 



67 
whole mode of apperception of modern life is tactile. . . . [Benjamin] conceived of life 
in the city as an unending series of shocks, which act on us like physical blows: to use a 
favourite image, like being jostled in a crowd" (Wollen 50). Cinema, then, reflected 
the lived situation of modern city-dwellers and could better prepare them for the 
discontinuous, fragmented nature of modernity than could the antiquated painting in a 
museum. 

We might see Benjamin's theory of the "shock effect" as an attempt to 
articulate a positive potential within the "culture industry." Unlike Adorno, Benjamin 
celebrated the passing of art's traditional contemplative function. He was excited by 
the modern city's potential to dismantle elitist notions of art. With its abundance of 
images-traffic, shop window displays, billboards, masses of people-the city required a 
new form of sense perception, a "social" form Benjamin likened to a "shock effect." 
Watching a film could instill habits in viewers-habits that trained them to live as "the 
masses" of the modern city. Wollen writes that these habits "were necessary to the 
masses at the present turning point in history, when the human apparatus of 
perception was confronted with a multitude of new demands and new tasks. Thus 
cinema, in a sense, was fulfilling the role of fitting the masses for the new and 
progressive forms of production that were being introduced" (51). 

Benjamin's notion of mass culture as "distraction" ultimately suggests that some 
"content" exists within the products of mass culture. Adorno misses this point because 
his model of cognition emerges from an outmoded concept of aesthetic contemplation. 
The "distraction" model points to a gradual, less dramatic, habitual mode of cognition. 



68 
One cannot become absorbed by the cinema; rather, one absorbs it. 

Though I discuss his theories in greater detail in Chapter 4, a third Frankfurt 
critic deserves mention here, for he similarly argues that a progressive potential lay 
submerged in the "distractions" of mass culture. In The Mass Ornament, Siegfried 
Kracauer likens cinema to such diverse manifestations as a hotel lobby and a dancing 
troupe, the "Tiller Girls." As objects of mass culture, these creations share a lack of 
substance; they are pure ornament, anchored by no meaning. Similar to Benjamin, 
Kracauer believed such a "distraction" as cinema possessed a potential to liberate the 
masses. For Kracauer, this liberation could be accomplished only if the emptiness of 
the movies exposed the emptiness of modern life. But on the contrary, he found that 
"Distraction— which is meaningful only as. . . a reflection of the uncontrolled anarchy of 
our world-is festooned with drapery and forced back into a unity that no longer exists" 
(Kracauer 327-28). As Wollen argues, Kracauer "rejected the option of going back to 
traditional forms of art. The way forward 'leads directly through the mass ornament, 
not away from it,' that is, through instrumental reason, not back to irrationality" 
(Wollen 56). Precisely how distraction might be remotivated to liberate rather than 
oppress remains unclear in Kracauer's writings. Wollen articulates this difficulty: "The 
problem was how to develop a new content, a truth-bearing content, from within 
formal reason, intrinsically. His Utopian dream was of a Fordist rationality that would 
not be dehumanizing" (56). Though Wollen likens Kracauer to Benjamin in his 
rejection of irrationality, my reading of Benjamin locates a constant tension between 
rational, materialist analysis and irrational, metaphysical rumination, a tension most 



69 
obvious in Benjamin's clashes with Adorno. 

Adorno and Benjamin agreed that the logic of cinema mirrored the logic of 
everyday life for the urban masses; yet this same truth represented liberation for 
Benjamin, and imprisonment for Adorno. Resolutely Marxist, Adorno criticized 
Benjamin's "romantic" theory of distraction. 1 In a letter to Benjamin, he wrote, 
"despite its shock-like seduction I do not find your theory of distraction convincing-if 
only for the simple reason that in a communist society work will be organized in such a 
way that people will no longer be so tired and so stultified that they need distraction" 
(Adorno 24). Continuing, he explained that "if anything does have an aural character, it 
is surely the film which possesses it to an extreme and highly suspect degree." In fact, 
as we have seen in his account of the optical unconsciousness, even Benjamin attributes 
magical, aura-like qualities to the cinema. Recall his description of slow motion that 
gives "the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions" or his reference 
to the camera's "ingenious guidance" which exposes the "hidden details of familiar 
objects" (Benjamin 746). Benjamin's theories of art in the age of mechanical 
reproduction manifest many such frustrating contradictions. Still, for the student of 
cinema, Benjamin's contradictions are more illuminating than Adorno's unrelenting 
consistency. 

The tension that manifests in Benjamin's theory of the shock effect reflects the 
tension that animates popular cinema. Benjamin was both a materialist and a 
metaphysician, a critic and a poet. This duality is especially evident in the fragments of 
his never-completed Arcades Project which I discuss in Chapter 5. Biographical 



70 
accounts and published correspondence likewise reveal that "although Benjamin 
professed to be a Marxist of sorts from the mid-Twenties on, from his first days to his 
last he was profoundly absorbed by theological questions." 2 His ability to perceive, and 
even celebrate, the sacred in everyday life amounted to a position untenable within 
either Marxism or theology. Evaluating Benjamin's correspondence, Mark Lilla 
summizes, "For genuine materialists, there can be no real tension between the sacred 
and profane, only between illusion and enlightenment." The theologian, in contrast, 
must find some way to live with that tension, whether by withdrawing from the world 
into mysticism, or attempting to establish a new social order based on his vision. 
"Others, like Benjamin, flirt promiscuously with both possibilities, remaining a riddle 
to themselves and to all who encounter them" (Lilla 42). 

This lack of commitment to one doctrine (or even one discipline) makes 
Benjamin ideally suited to observe and chronicle the upheavals of modernity. His 
sometimes contradictory theories amount to an expose of mass culture's own 
contradictions. For this reason his ideas have become invaluable to students of mass 
culture who now take for granted the ambivalent nature of consumer society. In 
Postmodernism and Popular Culture, Angela McRobbie similarly makes a case for 
Benjamin's importance in contemporary cultural studies, finding in his work "a model 
for the practice of being a cultural intellectual" (McRobbie 99). She argues that 
Benjamin's apparent delight in the pleasures of the modern city "intensified rather than 
blunted his critical faculties and led him to examine the historical processes which gave 
the items, the objects and the urban areas or districts, their cultural meaning" (105). 



71 
Indeed, his "delight" in these images enables him to perceive the complex relationship 
between politics and pleasure, thus sidestepping Adorno's unequivocal rejection of the 
pleasures of mass culture. 

Benjamin's interest in the disorienting, "phantasmagoric" effects of modernity 
likely finds its roots in surrealist accounts of cinema that revel in the excesses of the 
image. Part 2 begins by examining these theories of photogenie, a noteworthy (and 
perhaps notorious) antecedent to Benjamin's writings on the irrational pleasures of 
cinematic mise-en-scene. In addition, I examine several contemporary accounts of 
cinematic display, showing how popular movies of the 1920s and 30s enact-in both 
the mise-en-scene and the narrative-the issues at stake in these debates. The tension 
that Benjamin isolates between the excesses of cinematic materiality and the 
rationalizing forces of montage editing have their counterpart in particular 
transformations in the public sphere affecting American and European culture of the 
1920s and 30s. I will examine several Hollywood films that narrativize this debate, as 
they depict the increasing rationalization of the workplace, and woman's uneasy 
assimilation. 

The Surrealists and Photogenie 
Like Benjamin in "The Work of Art," the Impressionist and surrealist theorists 
of photogenie attempt to define the mass-produced commodity as the true setting of 
modern art. The sometimes ambiguous suggestions in Benjamin's essay emerge as a 
resounding credo in their writings. The surrealists take Benjamin's notion of 
"distraction" a step further-not only does it represent a new way of perceiving the art 



72 
of modernity, it represents a potential to disrupt narrative continuity. For proponents 
of photogenie, the disorienting, fragmented close-ups of objects in cinematic mise-en-scene 
distract the viewer from the often banal, and almost always burdensome, narrative. 

Richard Abel describes "The Emergence of Photogenie" in terms of a shift in the 
object of attention "from action and narration to description or representation. In 
other words, the focus turned from temporal progression to spatial composition or mise- 
en-scene" (Abel 107). Observing the cinema of their day, these writers concluded that 
the worst films maintained the conventions of narrative established in the 19th-century 
novel, and by theatrical conventions such as dramatic overacting and character 
development. In contrast, the best films were those that realized the potentials of mise- 
en-scene. Andre Breton, looking back on the surrealists' enthusiastic embracement of 
cinema, writes, "I think that what we valued most in it, to the point of taking no 
interest in anything else, was its power to disorient" (Breton 43). By some accounts, 
this delight in the disorienting images resulted in a particular distaste for "plot-heavy" 
movies. Breton quotes one "professional" (revealed in a footnote to be Rene Clair) who 
laments, "['theatrical,' action-driven cinema} bores me, and I have the greatest 
difficulty in understanding what is going on. It's invariably necessary to explain the 
plot to me afterwards" (45). Clair expresses a view, typical among Surrealist and 
Impressionist film theorists, that the cinematic image is more interesting than the 
unfolding narrative. 

Photogenie amounts to a film theory-perhaps even a manifesto-of the "optical 
unconsciousness." Philippe Soupault writes, "The richness of this new art is apparent to 



73 
those who know how to see. Its power is tremendous since it reverses all natural laws: 

it ignores space and time; it upsets gravity, ballistics, biology, etc. ... Its eye is more 
patient, more penetrating, more precise. Thus the future belongs to the creator, the 
poet, who makes use of this hitherto neglected power and richness" (Abel 143). Like 
Benjamin, Soupault pinpoints cinema's unique ability to shatter everyday perception. 
When Soupault speaks of "those who know how to see," he speaks of those who 
embrace photography's ability to manifest the otherwise latent content of an image. 
Benjamin writes, "For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: 
other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space 
informed by the unconscious" (Benjamin, "Small History" 243). Cinematic 
photography was thus naturally suited to the surrealist goal of freeing the unsettling, 
marvellous content that lay dormant in bourgeois imagery. 

They achieved this goal through their own practices of filmmaking, film- 
viewing, and filmcritiquing. Their filmmaking practices were designed to simulate 
dream-logic, accomplished by either shooting their own films of shocking, radically 
juxtaposed imagery (as in Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou) or reassembling fragments taken 
from popular narrative films (as in Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart). These films 
foregrounded mise-en-scene and all but eliminated narrative. Marcel Marien writes that 
"the most difficult obstacle to surmount would be the traditional concept of the 
narration." He decides that "it would be important to cut the storyline thread while 
retaining the emotional effects." He speaks of "wrench[ing}" the images from the 
"eternal narration to which they are now constrained" (Marien 92, 89). Their film- 



74 
viewing practices amounted to a similar technique, as they simulated this disorienting 
type of film-making. Such effects were achieved by blinking rapidly while watching a 
film, or by hopping from theater to theater mid-movie, effectually creating a new 
"movie" of nonsensically juxtaposed segments. Methods of film critique included 
"synthetic criticism" and "irrational enlargement." "Synthetic criticism" was introduced 
by Louis Aragon to "signify the tangential reading of a film, the bringing to the surface 
of a film's second, secret life, its latent content." The method of tangential reading 
applied surrealist principles of film-making to film criticism: it involved "extracting} 
individual images or short sequences whose poetic charge, when liberated from the 
narrative that held them prisoner, was intensified" (Hammond 5). "Irrational 
enlargement" involved posing a series of non-sequitur questions about a given film. 
The imaginative answers amounted to a "mental re-editing" of the film that dismantled 
the rational narrative. 

Like Benjamin, the surrealists celebrated cinema's dismantling of an outmoded 
artistic tradition. They argued that the objects of everyday life had supplanted the 
traditional conception of art, and cinema fittingly displayed these objects. Louis 
Aragon's "On Decor" particularly captures this modern spirit: "Before the appearance 
of the cinematographe hardly any artist dared use the false harmony of machines and 
the obsessive beauty of commercial inscriptions, posters, evocative lettering, really 
common objects, everything that celebrates our life, not some artificial convention that 
excludes corned beef and tins of polish" (Aragon 28). But also like Benjamin, their 
redefinition of art in the age of mechanical reproduction suggested an attribution of 



75 
"aura-like" characteristics to modern commodities. But unlike Benjamin, the 
sutrealists openly acknowledged this metaphysical leaning, and embraced the 
perversion it represented. Richard Abel speaks of their interest in "the spirit of things," 
quoting Vuillermoz's declaration, "The search for the real must extend to believing in 
the religion of things, to the discovery of their soul, to seeing as a sort of secret 
pantheism which animates the greatest painters and sculptors" (Abel 108). In short, 
they celebrated commodity fetishism, as commodities represented the art of the masses. 
Both Benjamin and Aragon describe the potential of objects within the mise-en- 
scene to become "actors," enacting the Marxist notion of fetishism in which "people and 
things exchange semblances: social relations take on the charcter of object relations, 
and commodities assume the active agency of people" (Apter 27). Aragon speaks of 
"those dear old American adventure films that speak of daily life and manage to raise to 
a dramatic level a banknote on which our attention is rivetted, a table with a revolver 
on it, a bottle that on occasion becomes a weapon, a handkerchief that reveals a crime, 
a typewriter that's the horizon of a desk, the terrible unfolding telegraphic tape with 
magic ciphers that enrich or ruin bankers." By attributing agency to these objects, 
cinema pays homage to the commodity fetish as the only truly modern art; as Aragon 
attests, "To endow with a poetic value that which does not yet possess it, to wilfully 
restrict the field of vision so as to intensify expression: these are two properties that 
help make cinematic decor the adequate setting of modern beauty" (Aragon 29). 
Describing the drastically different requirements of acting for theater as opposed to 
cinema, Benjamin observes that in cinema, actors become objects, and vice versa: "it is 



16 
not unusual for the film to assign a role to the stage property." To exemplify, he 
describes how a clock can become a vital prop for cinema, whereas it remains useless for 
theater, as its undisturbed measurement of time would "always be a disturbance on the 
stage" (Benjamin 741, footnote 11). 

As it did in Benjamin's "distraction" theory, this attribution of "aura-like" 
qualities to mechanically reproduced objects (or images of objects) amounts to a re- 
casting of art's "contemplative" function. Benjamin traced a "theological archetype" in 
the contemplation demanded by paintings. Historically, contemplation suited "the 
heyday of the bourgeoisie;" but the post-Industrial Revolution, working-class culture 
demanded new forms of perception and cognition. The masses demanded a more 
social, interactive, democratic form of art that countered the bourgeois "tendency to 
withdraw from public affairs" (Benjamin 748, footnote 18). For Benjamin, cinema met 
just this need— its simultaneous exhibition to large amounts of people granted the same 
critical privilege to the novice as it did the expert. Cinema combined "the direct, 
intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert" 
(744-745). Cinema replaced anti-social, theological contemplation with social, 
proletarian "distraction." With this transformation, mass-produced objects (including 
cinema and the objects it displayed) elicited "visual and emotional enjoyment," and 
thus absorbed some of the irrational, metaphysical characteristics previously attributed 
to the "aura" of art. 

We might see photogenie similarly, as a democratic mode of "visual and 
emotional enjoyment." Aragon's descriptions of modern commodities pinpoint this 



77 
democratic aesthetic-- che objects are beautiful, mass-produced, interactive, inexpensive, 
and available to almost everyone. Their cinematic portrayal amounts to a modern 
"painting." Aragon speaks of "this rapturous display of tinned goods (what great 
painter has composed this?), or this counter with the row of bottles that makes you 
drunk just to look at it" (Aragon 28). The cinema, like the marketplace, displays 
beautifully packaged, artfully arranged commodities to elict the masses' visual pleasure. 
A social, democratic implication accompanies their consumption (whether literally, as 
one consumes a tin of food, or figuratively, as one consumes the displays in a shop 
window or the images in a movie). Aragon embraces a public that knows "how to be 
moved by a newspaper or a packet of cigarettes," a public that "thrills and communes" 
before modern decor. 

Aragon's spirited descriptions of commodities anticipate the pop art 
"revolution" typically attributed to Andy Warhol, whose paintings of soup cans have 
become a cliched representation of commodity fetishism. 3 Most art historians see in 
Warhol's work both a celebration and a critique of consumer culture. I would argue 
that the "critique" is in the eye of the beholder-in the deeply ingrained "way of seeing" 
that cannot attribute aesthetic value to commodities, and must view artful portrayals of 
commodities as parodies. But this is precisely the portrayal we find in Aragon, with no 
hint of parody. Far from parodying commodity fetishism, these descriptions of 
photogenie (like Warhol's portraits of soup cans or cola bottles) embrace commodity 
fetishism and parody art. As such, they expose the "outmoded concepts" that 
Benjamin's essay targets: "Creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery" no longer 



78 
apply to the individual artist, but to the mass-produced commodity (Benjamin 732). 

Mise-en-scene Meets the "New Woman" 
This section considers several early Hollywood films which further complicate 
the problems of cinematic display, as they consistently align the female image with a 
lavish mise-en-scene that threatens to disrupt the narrative. These films expose a certain 
anxiety about the "New Woman's" increasing mobility as she enters the workplace and 
wanders about the modern city unchaperoned. As such, she represents a dangerous 
distraction in the increasingly "Taylorized" workplace. 4 In one sense, these particular 
movies counter Benjamin's Utopian model of "distraction" and the surrealists' 
celebration of mise-en-scene, as they present the eroticizied female image as a pernicious 
distraction in the male-dominated world of business. Certain psychoanalytic feminist 
film theories account for this conflation of female and spectacle by describing the 
woman as object of the fetishizing male gaze. Other, more historically specific 
accounts, examine the woman's role as consumer of both commodities and cinematic 
images, suggesting that visual pleasure is her privilege, too. These historical accounts 
suggest that the female spectator is not unlike Benjamin's distracted flaneur or Aragon's 
enraptured observer. 

In Virgins, Vamps and Flappers, Sumiko Higashi addresses Hollywood's depiction 
of "The New Woman," noting how women's entrance into the workplace affected 
their lives much more directly and profoundly than did suffrage: "With respect to the 
status of women, voting did not make a difference because it failed to challenge 
definitions of womanhood based on domesticity. Change came from a source 



79 
altogether different than the vote. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own, 
Of the two--the vote and the money-the money I own, seemed infinitely the more 
important.' Despite the fact that women were locked into undesirable and ill-paid 
work, a significant index to their changing status lay in their working numbers, not in 
their turnout at the polls" (Higashi 1 1 1). This "changing status" becomes the 
motivation for countless Hollywood movies of the twenties and thirties that portrayed 
the varied consequences -ranging from comic to tragic-of women entering the male 
world of business and industry. 

1932's Beauty and the Boss specifically addresses the problems of integrating 
women into the rationalized, efficient workplace. Both the mise-en-scene and the 
narrative depict the tension between the male world of unfeeling, quantifiable 
transactions, and the female world of sensuality and ornamental excess. As the movie 
begins, the viewer enters the mechanized, masculine world of "Americanism," which 
"[stands] for true modernity, the liquidation of stifling traditions and shackling 
lifestyles and work habits" (Wollen 36). The opening scenes bombard the viewer with 
images of urban mobility: A whirling airplane propellar and aerial view of a lighted 
cityscape dissolve into a montage of urbanity. Superimposed onto the image of a busy 
city street are a turning automobile wheel, an accelerating speedometer, and two 
odometers marking the miles travelled. We are introduced to the male lead, bank 
president Baron Von Ulrich, who brilliantly caricatures the efficiency-obsessed 
businessman. In his first appearance, he rapidly and impatiently dictates to his 
assistant on the airplane, as they return to America. His quick-paced dialogue exposes 



80 
his ergonomic inclinations, as he "quantifies" evety interaction. He instructs reporters 
who meet him at the airport, "Hold your questions for the press conference at 3:00." 
He dismisses his concierge's ceremonious welcoming speech with "I was there four 
days." Impatient with the concierge's flowery eloquence, the Baron quips, "Too many 
words. . . archaic, inefficient," as he enters his deco-furnished office to dicate a 
summary of his negotiations abroad. 

The stenographer's entrance brings the president's smoothly-flowing 
transactions to an abrupt halt. His attempt to dictate a memo is constantly diverted by 
the smell of her perfume, and the sight of her legs and decolletage. Their pre-Hays 
Code dialogue ensues -- a quick repartee of double-entendres. Von Ulrich dictates 
additional memos: no employees shall wear perfume, all employees shall wear long 
sleeves. He finally confronts the problem: "Miss Frayne, you're much too pretty to be 
caged in a bank. No woman should look pretty who works in a bank. It disturbs the 
bankers, takes the eyes of the tellers off their bills and currency. The clerks become 
confused at their columns. It's dangerous. Invites disaster." Miss Frayne responds, 
"But I thought it made men happier at work to see a pretty woman about." As Von 
Ulrich sets her straight, he adds another layer of meaning to the discourse of 
"distraction" and "contemplation." "Men don't come to work to be happy," he tells 
her. "They come to earn their daily bread. Women are for non-working hours. And 
you're much too pretty and soft and seductive. . . You distract me! Think what I lose 
contemplating your charms. My time is worth 5,000 an hour. Already I've lost ten 
minutes looking at you- that's over 800. In a year I should lose a million and a half." 



81 
Miss Frayne introduces an element of leisurely, erotic contemplation-a severe 
encumbrance to the productive workplace. 

Many feminist film theories account for this feminine "interruption" through 
recourse to psychoanalytic explanations of castration anxiety and fetishism. Deriving 
from Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," these accounts situate 
"woman as image, man as bearer of the look" (Mulvey 837). Mulvey argues that 
dominant cinema perpetuates the desires and fantasies of a patriarchal society by 
positioning the female image as a fetishized figure, with that fetish designed to gloss 
over the castration threat for the male spectator. Thus for women to appear at all in 
cinema, their threatening presence must be made into a spectacle. She writes, "The 
presence of woman is an indispensible element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet 
her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the 
flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation" (837). The female image thereby 
obstructs the narrative flow. 

Mulvey addresses the same phenomenon the surrealists described aspbotogeme, 
but finds oppression where they found liberation. In her introduction, she states, "It is 
said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article" 
(835). This disparity in their conclusions results from Mulvey's premise that visual 
pleasure always privileges the male gaze. Her loyalty to certain phallocentric categories 
of psychoanalysis permits this equation of visual pleasure and masculine desire. 
According to Freud, only males can fetishize, because only males experience castration 
anxiety. Thus when it comes to accounting for the female's pleasure in cinematic 



82 
imagery, Mulvey remains mute. Those who have attempted to theorize the female 
spectator, remaining loyal to the categories of psychoanalysis, explain that she can 
"masquerade" as a male spectator, and thus experience a "masochistic" pleasure. 

This psychoanalytic explanation of visual pleasure may account for Von Ulnch's 
looks at Miss Frayne, but leaves many other occurrences unexplained-not the least of 
which is Miss Frayne's own salacious glances at Von Ulrich. Explaining her secretarial 
ineptitude, Miss Frayne confesses that she becomes so captivated by desire that she 
"strikes the wrong keys." She rhapsodizes, "Your hair has such an adorable touch of 
gray, your eyes frighten me, but your smile intoxicates me." Another important aspect 
of cinematic display unaccounted for in Mulvey's paradigm concerns the importance of 
objects-Aragon's decor-as narrative-thwarting spectacles. Mulvey's account 
elucidates "fascination with the human form," but ignores fascination with the human- 
made artifact, a fascination overtly coopted by Hollywood cinema (835). Beauty and 
the Boss, like many movies of the time, portrays female desire for beautiful things. The 
film's heroine finds love, which awakens all her desires, as she expresses: "I want 
beautiful clothes, shining automobUes. ... I want to be filled to the brim with living." 

Similarly, 1927s Orchids and Ermine stars Colleen Moore as Pink Watson, a 
"working girl" preoccupied by beautiful things, even as she represents one such 
"beautiful thing" herself. She longs for the elegant furs and lavish ornaments she sees 
in the city, evident in the opening frame which displays the film's title on shop 
windows-"Orchids" painted on the florist's window and "Ermine" on the furrier's. 
The film's narrative hinges on the fact that though she longs for these luxuries, she 



83 
does not yet possess them. Ironically, her plain wardrobe lands her the job whereby she 

gains access to luxurious orchids and ermine. Pink applies for a job as a switchboard 

operator at a wealthy Fifth Avenue hotel. When she arrives for her job interview, she 

takes her place in line with a number of other applicants, all wearing fur-trimmed coats 

and lavishly decorated hats. Pink, in her simple dark dress, immediately notices her 

difference and attempts to mimic the stilted posture of the elegant ladies. The film 

cuts to the supervisor's office, where he instructs his assistant, "No chiffon girls. Send 

in a girl that looks sensible." The assistant notes Pink's plain wardrobe and chooses 

her, stating "You'll do. Start at eight tomorrow, and no fancy clothes." Although Pink 

reports to work appropriately clad, the lavish fashions of the hotel's wealthy patrons 

cause Pink's continued ineptitude at the switchboard. Distracted by the furs and 

flowers adorning the women's clothes, Pink fumbles with the switchboard as she 

continues to mimick elegant poses and stroke her own imaginary fur collar. Though 

fur remains a classic example of Freudian fetishism, canonized in Sacher-Masoch's 

Venus in Furs, most accounts within film theory continue to disregard the implications 

of female fetishism. 6 Typically, feminist film theorists who examine the woman's desire 

for pleasure articulate her role as a passive victim of consumer society. 

Mulvey's recent Fetishism and Curiosity attempts to back away from the 

monolithic framework of "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" and re-examine 

"fetishism, the carrier of such negative ideological connotations once upon a time" (11). 

But her re-examination produces no revelations-she concludes that fetishism is useful 

insofar as "The fetish acknowledges its own traumatic history like a red flag, 



84 
symptomatically signalling a site of psychic pain." Thus the critic needn't dismiss the 
fetish altogether, but use it to diagnose "sites of social pain" (12-13). The difference 
between this view of fetishism and the view espoused in "Visual Pleasure" is minimal. 
Fetishism and Curiosity does take a somewhat historical turn, bringing consumerism into 
the scope of Mulvey's arguments. Nevertheless, she addresses the artifacts oimise-en- 
scene as commodity fetishes only as they link "the erotic spectacle of the feminine to the 
eroticised spectacle of the commodity" (14). She acknowledges the role of 
consumerism in women's lives, but sees it only as contributing to women's oppression- 
the fetish is useful only insofar as it illuminates the social fantasies that produce it. She 
writes of feminists who examine the female as spectator and consumer of images: "This 
process [of examining why particular images appeal to women} necessarily led back to 
the society that produced them and the obsessions and imitations that created its 
collective fantasy" (27). 

Her discussion of pre-Hayes Code Hollywood movies proves particularly 
relevant to my examination of Beauty and the Boss: "The movies dramatised sex, 
allowing a negotiation between men and women in which women were able to assert 
not only desire, but also autonomy. And although many movies ended with marriage, 
the negotiations, the wit and the light-hearted rapid exchanges took up most of the 
story time" (45). She concludes that these movies are "simultaneously liberating in 
address [to women who were moving toward sexual autonomy], and constraining and 
objectifying as liberation is couched in terms of commodity culture" (43). In this 
scheme, Beauty and the Boss is liberating in its depiction of the female who desires the 



85 

bank president, but constraining in its depiction of the female who desires beautiful 

clothes. 

I want to propose a reading that somewhat reverses Mulvey's terms. What if 
liberation lies in women's increasing facility with commodity culture, while constraint 
emerges from the awkward narrative conventions that typically "marry off' the woman 
in the end. Filmic displays of consumer culture-lingering shots of busy city streets, 
shop windows, fashions (sometimes actual fashion shows), interior decor-elicit a 
signifying excess. Their purpose exceeds the narrative and enters an indeterminate 
realm of free-floating pleasure. While Mulvey can conceive of women only as suffering 
within this realm of sensuous pleasure, I argue that women-not unlike the surrealists- 
find liberation in the ambiguities of mise-en-scene . The excessive mise-en-scene reflects the 
excessive imagery of the modern city, a place that offered numerous opportunities for 
women. Some opportunities were liberating, while others were oppressive, to be sure, 
but most significantly the city opened a door previously barred to women. Constantly 
working against this indeterminate imagery in cinema, however, are narrative 
conventions that legislate cause and effect relationships and necessitate narrative 
closure. As such, the problems and questions raised by women's entrance into the 
public sphere are typically foreclosed by her eventual marriage and return to 
domesticity. 

At the heart of my contention is a critique of Mulvey's psychoanalytic 
assumptions about visual pleasure and sexual difference. Because woman is a priori the 
"bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning" within Freud's scheme of castration 



86 
anxiety, her active look remains a theoretical impossibility, as does her ability to 
fetishize (Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure" 834) Hence all pleasure in looking occurs at her 
expense. But historical examinations of consumer culture typically represent the female 
as the commodity fetishist /w excellance. This observation poses an enormous stumbling 
block for psychoanalytic feminist theories. While Mulvey doesn't confront this 
discrepancy, Mary Ann Doane does. In The Desire to Desire, Doane uses Mulvey's 
framework to analyze female desire in 1940s melodrama. In a pivotal moment, she 
rejects Marxist fetishism in favor of Freudian fetishism, a move that maintains Mulvey's 
denial of female pleasure in looking. Doane "corrects" Marx: "What we tend to 
define, since Marx, as commodity fetishism is in fact more accurately situated as a form 
of narcissism. Fetishism, in the Freudian paradigm, is a phallic defense which allows 
the subject to distance himself from the object of desire (or, more accurately, from its 
implications in relation to castration) through the overvaluation of a mediating 
substitute object" (Doane 32). 

Finally, Mulvey's account of cinematic spectacle betrays an intellectual bias, 
akin to what Baudelaire called "the academic error. 7 Thus liberation can only come 
through narrative action and intellectual curiosity. When she argues that "the sheer 
force of 'rich sight,' of the spectacle, creates a diversion away from inquiry or curiosity," 
she accounts for inquiry and curiosity only within the narrative (Mulvey, Fetishism and 
Curiosity 14). She ignores the counter-narrative, visual curiosity so important to the 
surrealists. She criticizes dominant cinema for excluding women from the male world 
of intellectual investigation and narrative problem-solving-in Breton's words, a world 



87 
where "the desire for analysis wins out over the sentiments"-precisely the world the 
surrealists wished to escape. As Breton writes, "Our brains are dulled by the incurable 
mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable" (Breton 9). For Benjamin 
and the surrealists, cinema's revolutionary potential lay in its dismantling of this 
intellectual, deciphering mode of perception that Mulvey privUeges. 

Countering Mulvey's explanations of cinematic spectacle are certain accounts of 
"cinematic excess" that in many ways resemble Benjamin's "optical unconscious" and 
the surrealists' photogenie. Roland Barflies' "The Third Meaning," and Kristin 
Thompson's "The Concept of Cinematic Excess" (taking her cue from Barthes) explain 
that "excess arises from the conflict between the materiality of a film and the unifying 
structures within it" (Thompson 132). Unlike Mulvey, they welcome this 
indeterminacy and oppose psychoanalytic explanations that would "explain away" the 
excess. For both Barthes and Thompson, excess liberates the viewer from the 
constraints of narrative. 

Barthes essay explores captivating moments within a film which seem to exceed 
any "informational" or "symbolic" readings. He examines a still from Eisenstein's Ivan 
the Terrible, and after analyzing its informational and symbolic meanings asks, "Is that 
all? No, for I am still held by the image. I read, I receive (and probably even first and 
foremost) a third meaning-evident, erratic, obstinate. I do not know what its signified 
is, at least I am unable to give it a name, but I can see clearly the traits, the signifying 
accidents of which this-consequently incomplete-sign is composed . . ." (Barthes 52). 
According to Barthes, the "left-over" or "excess" meaning is unintended by the film's 



88 
director, yet it remains the meaning he receives "ptobably even first and foremost." 
His comments resemble surrealist Nora Mitrani's: "fortunately a director is not always 
the master of his intentions that he would like to be, that it is very rare in even the 
most willful film for at least one of its sequences not to break free and, unknown to 
itself, reveal an intense reality" (Mitrani 96). Barthes proposes that these "third 
meanings" demand an interrogative reading: "[The third meaning] cannot be 
conflated with the simple existence of the scene, ... it compels an interrogative reading 
(interrogation bears precisely on the signifer not on the signified, on reading not on 
intellection: it is a 'poetical grasp)" (Barthes 53). Barthes calls the third meaning a 
"signifier without a signified," as it leaves the viewer free to graft his/her own meanings 
onto the erratic signifier. Acknowledging the third meaning's fragmenting, over- 
valuative nature, Barthes writes, "here begins the fetish" (58). 

Similarly, Kristin Thompson prompts readings based on attention to scenes of 
"excess." She argues that "One of the great limitations for the viewer in our culture has 
been the attitude that film equals narrative, and that entertainment consists wholly of 
an 'escapism' inherent in the plot. Such a belief limits the spectator's participation to 
understanding only the chain of cause and effect" (140). In contrast, she writes that 
the viewer must free him/herself from the narrative prison and see a fdm as "a 
perceptual field of structures which the viewer is free to study at length, going beyond 
the strictly functional aspects" (141). This process entails certain "perceptual shifts" 
that she compares to surrealist filmmaking practices. 

Barthes and Thompson point to a variation of "curiosity" denied by Mulvey. 



89 
The excessive signifier-alternately the "third meaning," "obtuse meaning," or "filmic" - 
-incites Barthes' curiosity, but it is an emotional, rather than intellectual curiosity. 
Struggling to define the meaning which resists definition, Barthes articulates its highly 
personalized piquancy: "I believe that the obtuse meaning carries a certain emotion. . . 
. it is an emotion which simply designates what one loves, what one wants to defend: 
an emotion-value, an evaluation" (59). In fact, the obtuse meaning works precisely 
against the intellectually-fueled vehicles of narrative and criticism. "Discontinuous, 
indifferent to the story," the obtuse meaning is "the epitome of a counter-narrative" 
(63, 61). It doesn't destroy the narrative, but subverts it. Its resistance to 
interpretation refuses the critic's "diagnosis" - "the obtuse meaning disturbs. . . 
metalanguage (criticism)" (61). 

As I suggested in my introduction, this signifying excess reflects the continued 
presence of what Tom Gunning has called the "cinema of attractions." His work 
examines "primitive," pre-narrative cinema and describes its exhibkionistic aesthetic of 
display. These early films see cinema "less as a way of telling stories than as a way of 
presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating because of their illusory power. . 
. and exoticism" (Gunning 57). This "cinema of attractions" captivates audiences with 
picturesque tableaux and exotic scenery, and uses narrative only as a framing device for 
these tableaux. Rather than take its cue from the bourgeois novel or theater, which 
typically presents a voyeuristic view of psychologically developed characters, the cinema 
of attractions presents an exhibitionist view of some spectacle "that is of interest in 
itself (58). 



90 

The "cinema of attractions" never fully disappears. Gunning maintains that 
even classical Hollywood cinema contains moments of unmotivated spectacle in its 
otherwise economical narrative-Mulvey's formulation of "woman as image" addresses 
one such use of spectacle. But Gunning's arguments about the value of spectacle 
problematize Mulvey's conclusions. He proposes that "popular entertainment offered 
enormous liberation at the beginning of the century," and it was against this liberating 
potential that reform groups began to attack cinema. He ascribes a certain spectatorial 
freedom to these ungoverned images. 

I contend that Gunning's notion of cinematic "attractions" applies to the 
displays of consumer culture prolific in cinema of the twenties and thirties. The 
lingering shots of city streets, store windows, and fashion shows mimic the 
exhibitionary address of the "attraction." Examining the "fashion show-in-the-film," 
Charlotte Herzog describes how it evolved from the newsreel short to a convention of 
many narrative "women's films" of the 1920s and 30s. Rather than exploring the 
implications of interrupting the narrative with a fashion show "that is of interest in 
itself," Herzog sets out to prove "how the fashion show exploits the way women as the 
primary audience see themselves in order to subtly suggest the sale of clothes to them" 
(Herzog 137). She remains faithful to Mulvey's active/male, passive/female binarism. 
Though the display of fashions elicits an active, pleasurable "look" from its female 
spectators, Herzog ultimately deems this "look" masochistic: the female spectator 
"plays the part of a man looking at herself, judging, criticizing, and comparing herself 
to other women" (158). But Gunning suggests such narrative interruptions may 



91 
provide a transgressive pleasure, undermining the restrictions of narrative by 

introducing free-floating signifiers. 

In "An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous 
Spectator," Gunning relates this liberation to both surrealist photogenie and Benjamin's 
Utopian "shock effect." He writes that non-narrative spectacle "provides an 
underground current flowing beneath narrative logic and diegetic realism, producing 
those moments of cinematic depaysement beloved by the surrealists" (Gunning, 
"Aesthetic of Astonishment" 123). Furthermore, the cinema of attractions "responds to 
the specifics of modern and especially urban life, what Benjamin and Kracauer 
understood as the drying up of experience and its replacement by a culture of 
distraction" (126). Like Benjamin, Gunning relates what he calls "lust of the eyes" to 
particular developments of the Nineteenth century-"expanding urbanisation with its 
kaleidoscopic succession of city sights, the growth of consumer society with its new 
emphasis on stimulating spending through visual display. . ." (125). 

The question remains in Gunning's work, whether this "lust of the eyes" was 
applicable only to men, as Benjamin's flaneur might suggest. Anne Friedberg's recent 
unearthing of the flaneuse suggests otherwise. In the following chapter, I explore how 
thefldneuse might represent a mediating figure that negotiates the drifts between the 
forward-moving narrative and the distractions ofmise-en-scene. I examine the 
significantly "international" production Prix de Beaute-ptoduced in France, directed by 
an Italian, starring an American most famous for her German roles-which engages the 
gendered implications of mass culture's "distractions" in both its narrative and mise-en- 



92 
scene. 

In closing, I wish to briefly describe another film produced in France, Jean 
Vigo's L'Atalante of 1934, a film whose three main characters uncannily correspond to 
the three models of cinema spectatorship that orient my study. One responds to the 
logical demands of narrative progression, another remains forever distracted by the 
details oimise-en-scene, while the third represents somewhat of a mediating figure. 
Significantly, this mediator is a female character, playing a role-both diegetically and 
extra-diegetically --that corresponds to Friedberg's notion of the fldneuse. 

Jean, the barge captain, stands for a classical narrative position. It is his job to 
keep the barge on its straight path, and to assure that it arrives efficiently at its 
destination. We might see him as the typical Hollywood studio director, story- 
boarding the barge's every move, and wrestling at every moment with his impulsive 
ship-mate Jules, who constantly threatens to the divert the ship's course. 

Jules, then, represents the excesses of mise-en-scene; he revels in the "stuff of 
modern culture. His is an ungoverned world-sometimes beautiful, sometimes 
disquieting -where meanings float wildly in the air, unanchored to narrative purpose. 
In short, he is the surrealist. Any object, at any moment, can capture Jules' attention 
and divert his path. He collects and rearranges objects according to the perverse logic 
of dreams. He has no use for rational purpose-if he arrives at a destination, it can be 

only incidental. 

Juliette, Jean's bride, amounts to a moderating figure between the two. She is 
apt to be seduced by Jules' world of excess, but her commitment to life on the barge 



93 
with Jean anchors her nonetheless. She enjoys straying from the confining 
requirements of barge life, delighting in the fashion news from Paris ("Berets must be 
worn tilted to the right this season!") and wandering the city streets, feasting her senses 
on the shop windows, street-vendors, and fellow gazers. Juliette indulges herself in 
the sensual imagery of the city, but her rambling path ultimately leads back home. 
Because Juliette is in love with Jean, she returns from her aimless strolling to resume 
her traditional role as domestic caregiver. 

The heroine of Prix de Beaute, by contrast, allows the pleasures of mass culture 
to seduce her away from domesticity. She represents the potential threat the fldneuse 
poses to traditional patriarchal society, reminding us of the twofold nature of 
"distraction": In one sense it refers to a constant state of inattention Benjamin 
describes that characterizes the city dweller or the factory worker-a state necessitated 
by the quick pace of the city street or the assembly line. In this sense, the "content" of 
mass art is a particularly useful habit of perception that enables one to survive 
modernity's transformations. But in another sense, "distraction" also refers to the 
actual proliferation of images-the movies, shop-windows, fashions, and billboards- 
products whose constant presence demands the masses' attention, albeit an "absent- 
minded" one. As we will continue to investigate in the following chapter, when these 
"distraction" debates become gendered, the terms shift. When women begin to 
partake in the pleasures of mass culture, "distraction" begins to signify something 
pernicious: a distraction from traditional domesticity. Prix de Beaute, like the 
Hollywood films I've discussed, hinges on a tension between the potentially- 



94 

threatening pleasures of mise-en-scene and the constraints of a logical, typically 
conservative, narrative which must contain that threat. 



Notes 

1 Their correspondence reveals that Adorno was well aware of Benjamin's failure 
to commit to Marxism. He writes, "Your solidarity with the Institute [of Social 
Research}, which pleases no one more than myself, has induced you to pay tributes to 
Marxism which are not really suited either to Marxism or to yourself." Continuing, he 
even suggests that Benjamin's ideas might achieve fuller fruition if he abandoned his 
materialist pretentions altogether: "[Your tributes to Marxism] do not suit your own 
individual nature because you have denied yourself your boldest and most fruitful ideas 
in a kind of pre-censorship according to materialist categories." Aesthetics and Politics , 
(London: Verso, 1977), 130. 

2 Mark Lilla, "The Riddle of Walter Benjamin," New York Review, May 25, 
1995, p. 37- Reviewing The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, Mark 
Lilla notes that Benjamin's association with the Frankfurt School was largely due to 
financial necessity, a fact regretted by Benjamin's friends Gershom Scholem and 
Hannah Arendt: "While both were thankful to the Institute for supporting Benjamin 
financially, neither believed that Marxist critical theory was a meaningful enterprise, or 
that the term adequately described what was truly important about Benjamin's 
writings." Lilla, 42. 

3 Warhol also celebrates the democratic character of commodities. He describes 
the beauty of Coca-Cola: "What's great about this country is that America started the 
tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. 
You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President 
drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too. A Coke 
is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on 
the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz 
Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it." The 
Philosophy of Andy Warhol (Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1975) 100-101. 

4 In his discussion of "Americanism," Peter Wollen addresses the significance 
of Frederick Winslow Taylor's "science" of ergonomics in the increasing mechanization 
of the workplace in the 1920s: ". . . the USA was providing the world with a new 
model of industrialism. Taylor was the pioneer of what we now know as ergonomics. 
By observation, photographic recording, and experiment, he broke down the physical 
gestures of workers to find out which were the most efficient, in time expenditure and 
labour power, for any particular job. . . . Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management, 



95 

published in 1911, heralded a new epoch in which the worker would become as 
predictable, regulated, and effective as the machine itself." Raiding the Icebox 
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) 36. 

5 See, for example, Mary Ann Doane's "Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing 
the Female Spectator," Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Patricia Erens, ed. 
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). 

6 Film theory has been slow to acknowledge the pioneering work of feminist literary 
criticism regarding the possibilities of female fetishism. Naomi Schor's groundbreaking 
"Female Fetishism: The Case of George Sand" argues that undeniable cases of female 
fetishism in George Sand's works destabilize the phallocentric underpinnings of Freudian 
psychoanalysis. She writes, "Female fetishism is not so much, if at all, a perversion, rather a 
strategy designed to turn the so-called 'riddle of femininity' to women's account." Poetics 
Today 6, no. 1-2 (1985) 301-310. See also Emily Apter's Feminizing the Fetish: Psychoanalysis 
and Narrative Obsession in Turn-of-the-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991). 

7 In "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire distinguishes the twofold nature of 
beauty: it is both "rational" ("made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose 
quantity it is excessively difficult to determine") and "historical" ("of a relative, 
circumstantial element, which wUl be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the 
age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions"). He contends that the historical, 
circumstantial aspect is typically elided by intellectuals who typically disregard or even 
distrust the ephemeral. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays 
(London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995) 3-4. 






CHAPTER 4 
CONSUMING DISTRACTIONS IN PRIX DE BEAUTE (1930) 



We annihilate beauty when we link the artistic cteation with ptactical 
interests and transfotm the spectator into a selfishly interested 
bystander. The scenic background of the [photo }play is not presented in 
order that we decide whether we want to spend our next vacation there. 
The interior decoration of the rooms is not exhibited as a display for a 
department store. ... A good photoplay must be isolated and complete 
in itself like a beautiful melody. It is not an advertisement for the 
newest fashions. — Hugo Miinsterberg, 1916 

In a profound sense, Berlin audiences act truthfully when they 
increasingly shun these art events [that claim the status of high art}. . . , 
preferring instead the surface glamor of the stars, films, revues, and 
spectacular shows. Here, in pure externality, the audience encounters 
itself; its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid 
sense impressions. - Siegfried Kracauer, 1926 

Prix de Beaute, the 1930 production starring Louise Brooks, proves an 

interesting case study for a feminist examination of the much-contested debate about 

the pleasures of the "culture industry"in the early 20th Century. As it emerged within 

the Frankfurt School, this debate hinged on a central opposition between traditional art 

as "contemplation" and mass culture as "distraction." In both its mise-en-scene and its 

narrative, Prix de Beaute stages this opposition, portraying one woman's complex 

relationship to the pleasures of mass culture. The film's narrative traces the mobility of 

Lucienne (played by Brooks), an aspiring New Woman of the 1920s, whose dreams 

and desires find their realization in the fame and luxury that accompany her 

appointment as "Miss Europe." Even as the narrative prescribes a rather limited role 

96 



97 
for women in the age of mechanical reproduction, the film's mise-en-scene proliferates 

with images of a more ambiguous modernity, a modernity rife with unrealized 
potential. The objects represented in the mise-en-scene and their cinematic rendering 
recall the avant-garde's attempt to harness modern technology to their own Utopian 
goals and, indeed, address the spectator as a "selfishly interested bystander." 

By contrasting the epigraphs of Miinsterberg and Kracauer, I orient my project 
around the opposing positions that locate cinema's artistic value in either 
contemplation or distraction, unity or disunity. This opposition resurfaces in feminist 
film theory's attempt to both theorize cinema's relationship to women in general, and 
attend to the particular details of a given film. My examination of Prix de Beaute shows 
how these two endeavors are often at odds with one another. Additionally, the 
epigraphs point to the importance of modern decor, or "surface glamor" in contributing 
to a disunified, fragmented, distracting notion of cinema. I find certain parallels 
between Miinsterberg's distrust of these visual distractions and psychoanalytic film 
theory's censuring of visual "fetishism." My strategic focus on the pleasures of mise-en- 
scene takes its place within particular debates of feminist film theory, as I oppose many 
psychoanalytically-oriented feminist critiques that either ignore or censure the pleasures 
of cinematic imagery. Rather, I want to examine the potential benefits and problems of 
women's pleasure as it coincided with consumer culture in the 1920s. 

Because its cinematic style mimics the free-floating imagery of the modern 
cityscape, and its narrative specifically addresses issues of women's pleasure in the late 
1920s, Prix de Beaute provides an excellent anchor for an historical examination that 



98 
Patrice Petro would describe as simultaneously "formalist and culturalist" (Petro 67). 

Petro identifies the histotical turn taken by many feminists who find appatatus theory 
inadequate, and, "in an effort to reintroduce both historical and sexual specificity into 
theories of cinematic perception," examine "the ways in which a particular history (the 
history of consumer capitalism) transformed not just the organization of narrative and 
visual pleasure, but also the forms of subjectivity associated with a female spectator- 
subject" (Petro 75). In fact, the "visual pleasures" of consumer capitalism that surface 
in particular details of Prix de Beaute problematize many narrative-based theories of 
female spectatorship, and instead suggest the possibility of zflanerie-Yikz spectatorship 
in which women viewers indulge their own "practical interests" and enjoy their position 
as "selfishly interested bystanders." 

Film Theory vs. the Cinematic Detail 
Prix de Beaute ends with a symbolic image: Lucienne, the film's Cinderella- 
esque heroine played by Brooks, sits in a movie theater viewing her screen test. As she 
delights in her own image, her controlling lover Andre (whose offer of small-town 
marriage and mediocrity she has spurned to become a movie star) forces his way into 
the screening room and shoots her. The final image depicts Lucienne's dead body 
reflecting her own flickering image that continues to animate the screen. 

Mary Ann Doane uses this scene from Prix de Beaute to mobilize an argument 
about the inadequacy of much feminist film theory: "[The scene] specifies something 
of the process of feminist film theory which, in a way, mimics the cinematic 
construction of the Woman, reinscribing her abstraction. It is not only the apparatus 



99 
which produces Woman but apparatus theory, in a strange complicity with its object" 

(Doane 78). Doane's solution entails a call to "historicize," to counter "rigid theoretical 
constructions misrecognized as historical truth" with "history. . . , not as an appeal to 
the 'real' of women's lives, but as precisely this refusal of the compulsion to repeat in its 
own theoretical formulations the abstraction of woman." She envisions a middle- 
ground between history and theory that "refuse[s both} empiricism . . . [and] rigid 
theoretical constructions" (94-95). To avoid reiterating the cinematic construction of 
woman, she argues, "feminist theory must resist" the "process of troping" inherent in 
totalizing theories (93). 

Doane's discussion points to a tension that continues to plague film studies: the 
contradiction between the abstract, rationalizing tendencies of film theory and the 
historical, sensual concreteness of any particular film. This tension informs my analysis 
of Prix de Beaute, as I argue for a film criticism that bridges abstract, rational theory and 
concrete, sensual history. Yet I disagree that film theory must resist the process of 
troping. On the contrary, troping, a process implicit in the very nature of cinema, must 
be engaged, as one might assume the author of Femmes Fatales would understand. In 
fact, the concrete, historical objects of the mise-en-scene function precisely as tropes, or 
figurative representations. The field of material culture offers valuable insights into the 
logic of mise-en-scene, and informs my view of the mass cultural creations - from 
evening gowns to cuckoo clocks to magazines-that prove central to Prix de Beaute. 
Anthropologists who study material culture "understand objects as metaphors 
expressing underlying and often subliminal reflections of the cultural belief structure of 



100 
the object's creator"(Kingrey 4). One such scholar even proposed the pun "an-trope- 

ology" to illustrate the significance of metaphor in analyzing material culture (Prown). 

Far from resisting the process of troping, film criticism should actively engage it, 

exploring how elements of mise-en-scene serves as a repository for fantasies and desires. 

When we engage the objects of mise-en-scene as tropes, we gain insight into the 

relationship between the concrete and abstract, the historical and the theoretical. 

Approaches to cinema that oppose the concrete with the abstract , failing to 
engage the visceral logic of the image, result in a contradiction evidenced by Doane's 
book itself: The glossy black and white cover displays a bewitching image of Louise 
Brooks seductively gazing into the camera. An art deco design frames the image and a 
lithe, deco font forms the book's title: Femmes Fatales. Yet inside the book, Doane 
critiques cinema's "annihilation of the woman's memory through its appropriation," as 
evidenced in the movie poster : "The poster, fixing her image as star, is produced at 
the cost of a subjective history, for her public cinematic life excludes her private 
melodrama" (93). Doane theorizes that abstractions (whether via the movie poster, 
cinema, or film theory) malign women. With such a totalizing theory, it comes as no 
surprise that she reaches the same impasse she posits for apparatus theory, arguing 
against indexical representations and tropes of women even as she employs them. 
Though Doane argues that feminist film theory must account for historical context and 
question rigid theoretical models, these seem precisely the moves her method eschews. 

A more productive— and perhaps more honest— query might examine the 
historical context of particular cinematic tropes, considering both the costs and the 



101 
gains that accompany modernity's upheavals. In fact, what Doane refers to as 

technology's "annihilation of memory" more accurately represents technology's 

transformation of memory. Walter Benjamin writes that "History breaks down into 

images, not into stories" (Benjamin, "N" 25) Indeed, rather than annMating the 

woman's memory, the movie poster becomes the woman's memory, just as photographs 

become our present-day memories. Prix de Beaute chronicles the rise of this visual 

culture, exhibiting the diverse effects of media technologies-typewriters, printing 

presses, loudspeakers, phonographs, photography, magazines, cinema-that offer both 

drudgery and pleasure, oppression and liberation. 

The film hinges on the contrast between tradition and modernity-a dichotomy 

evident in the opening scene: in the first shot, the camera slowly pans a row of bicycles 

leaning on a fence, then moves upward to reveal a painted sign advertising a public 

swimming area. The camera cuts to the crowd of gleeful bathers inside, and lingers on 

a diving plank where a series of young people jump into the water. Both the style and 

the subject matter recall the Lumiere actualities and anticipate the Neorealist Bicycle 

Thief. The next shot, however, signifies a complication in this tradition - a 

complication that points to the modern seductions of consumerism. We see a placard 

advertising chocolates, then a man with a movie camera, displaying an advertisement 

that reads "Be in the Movies." The next shot singles in on the star of this movie, Louise 

Brooks, who plays Lucienne, an aspiring actress in her own right. 

Though Lucienne's dalliance with modern celebrity does in fact end with her 

murder, we cannot read the film as an allegory of technology's annihilation of what 



102 
Doane calls "remembering women." Significantly, Lucienne's demise comes by the 

hands of her provincial suitor who despises the "distractions" of modern life that 
provide Lucienne's only moments of pleasure. Modernity doesn't kill Lucienne; rather, 
a fear of modernity destroys her. Lucienne's facility with mass culture threatens 
Andre's patriarchial security, as she ultimately uses the discourse of mass culture to 
escape the oppressive banality of her everyday life. Prix ck Beaute thus narrativizes the 
complexity of life in an age of mechanical reproduction, revealing both its oppressive 
and liberatory potentials, as it traces the mobility of Lucienne, an aspiring "New 
Woman" of the 1920s. 

The Narrative: Containing the "Show-Off 
The film's heroine Lucienne (played by Louise Brooks) is a typist in a newspaper 
office. Her fiance Andre and their friend Antonin work in the typesetting department. 
Against the wishes of her fiance, Lucienne responds to a mass-media campaign (marked 
by newspaper notices, continued loudspeaker announcements on the city streets, and 
painted billboards) announcing the Miss France beauty contest. She sends in photos of 
herself, and is selected by the judges to represent France in the Miss Europe contest. 
Her fiance is furious with her, but she leaves for the contest anyway, giddy with her 
newfound celebrity and the luxurious gifts she receives. She wins the title of Miss 
Europe but reluctantly forfeits her publicity tour and returns to Andre after he delivers 
the ultimatum that she must choose between him or celebrity. Miserable in her 
domestic duties, she finally leaves Andre and signs a contract to become a movie star. 



103 
The narrative traces Lucienne's Cinderella-like transformation from laboring 

typist to famed beauty queen. In many senses, the film emerges from this contrast of 
Lucienne's two lives. Her traditional, "pre-celebrity" life consists of mundane office 
work, local outings with provincial friends, and endless domestic duties. Visibly bored 
--even embittered-by her monotonous routine, Lucienne brightens when she comes 
across the "Miss France" announcement in her stack of typing assignments. The 
loudspeaker outside her workplace seems to address her exclusively: "Miss! You in the 
street! Maybe you're Miss Europe. . . It's your chance of a lifetime. If we only knew in 
youth. . ." The words capture her latent fear of becoming forever stuck in the 
unstimulating life of a working-class housewife. This opportunity appears ideally 
suited to Lucienne, who, as we see in the film's opening scene, delights in her own 
ability to capture attention. 

The opening scene not only inscribes Lucienne's propensity for exhibitionism, 
but also alludes to the willful, even hedonistic, reputation of the actress Louise Brooks. 
Lucienne gleefully dons her seaside costume, counting aloud as she performs a series of 
calisthenics, much to the delight of several onlookers, until Andre iinterjects, "Stop 
showing off! Everyone's watching you. Aren't you ashamed?" His admonishment 
addresses both Lucienne and Louise Brooks, who appeared in a 1926 Paramount 
production, The Sbow-Off. Though Brooks didn't play the "show-off in the film, she 
quickly gained such a reputation in the popular press of the time. A newspaper 
headline of 1926 declared "Louise Brooks of Wichita Ordering Hollywood About." 
The article continued, "Louise is apparently taking what she wants instead of getting 



104 
what they give her. . ." (Paris 138). Her unprecedented confidence and tenacity 

rendered her eventually unfit for Hollywood productions within the studio system. In 

addition, Brooks gained an increasing reputation for her unapologetic, amorous 

dalliances, a circumstance that Prix de Beaute adroitly exploits. After Andre scolds 

Lucienne for "showing off," she appeases him with a love song: "Don't think I'm 

untrue. My only love is you. Don't be demanding. Be understanding. If a man says 

I'm a Venus. . . His most flattering praise can my heart never faze. . ." In this second 

extradiegetic reference, the song recalls Brooks' first notable film role as a beauty 

contestant in The American Venus. This opening scene thus foreshadows the impending 

difficulty of containing this strong-willed, pleasure-seeking woman whose heart is 

indeed "fazed"— by exotic gentlemen, first-class train travel, art deco jewelry, couture 

dresses— despite her attempts to conform to convention. 

In her book on the American silent movie heroine, Sumiko Higashi writes about 

the popularity of this Cinderella-plot in Hollywood films of the late twenties. The 

films she discusses share many similarities with Prix de Beaute , but it is the differences 

that prove the most telling. Significant to the films Higashi examines is the "working 

girls'" status as single women who find love in the workplace (typically in the form of a 

millionare boss), which obviates the necessity of further employment. "For the silent 

screen working girl," she writes, "employment was simply a detour en route to the 

altar. The so-called 'new woman' in these films could only be discerned in terms of 

personality and style, not economic independence" (Higashi 105). In this manner, she 

suggests, the narratives contained the threat that females in the workplace posed to 



105 
traditional domesticity. In Prix de Beaute, however, Lucienne chooses to be single and 

economically independent. The narrative responds by containing her threat —not with 

marriage but with death. 

Also unlike the typical "working-girl" transformation films, Prix de Beaute 

emphasizes the drudgery of Lucienne's domestic duties. It is not just the monotony of 

secretarial work that she wishes to escape, but the monotony of housework. After 

Andre persuades her to return home, Lucienne resolves to forget her brief romance 

with fame and settle into homelife. After a particularly unpleasant and lonely day of 

washing, ironing, and cooking, a moustached gentleman shows up at Lucienne's door, 

declaring "Sound Film International saw the tests we shot at St. Sebastian and has 

asked me to make you a big offer. You'll become a star! Your contract. . . . Just sign 

it." Remembering her promise to Andre to forget the whole affair, she rips the paper 

and throws it into the fireplace. But her taste of "the good life" proves far too 

seductive. The not-so-subtle images of a caged bird and a ticking cuckoo clock repeat 

throughout her workday, and again as she shifts restlessly in bed that evening. Alas, 

she moves quietly into the living room, pieces together the film contract she had torn 

to shreds and leaves a letter for Andre, explaining her decision: "I've changed too 

much," she writes. Thus Andre's greatest fear has become reality. Lucienne remains 

forever changed by the seductions of mass culture. She manages to elude the drudgery 

of domesticity through her pleasure in the "distractions" of modern life such as 

magazines, fashion, and the cinema, as she ultimately uses these discourses to transform 

herself. 



106 
Gendering the Distraction: Women and the "Street of Life" 

Prix de Beaute reflects a more general ambivalence about the products of mass 

culture-a debate expressed by certain theorists of the Frankfurt school who observed 

these products' transformation of everyday life in the modern age. Elsewhere, I have 

examined how Walter Benjamin's notion of mass culture as "distraction" marks an 

attempt to redefine aesthetic value in the age of mechanical reproduction. Similarly, 

Siegfried Kracauer seems to suggest that a progressive potential lies submerged in the 

"distractions" of mass culture. Sabine Hake's article "Girls and Crisis-The Other Side 

of Diversion" notes that Kracauer was "one of the first to pay serious attention to the 

mechanisms of diversion which he closely linked to the development of the modern 

city, the economic changes towards a society and culture of white-collar workers and 

the destruction of traditional class structure" (Hake 147, 148). Kracauer shares with 

Benjamin the belief that contemplation is an outmoded model of reception that has no 

place in the modern city, where an unprecedented number and variety of people 

intermingle. In "Cult of Distraction: On Berlin's Picture Palaces," Kracauer writes, "It 

cannot be overlooked that there &refour million people in Berlin. The sheer necessity of 

their circulation transforms the life of the street into the ineluctable street of life, giving 

rise to configurations that invade even domestic space." Bourgeois sensibilities and the 

art forms that cater to them are a thing of the past, as the modern city originates a 

"homogeneous cosmopolitan audience," whose aesthetic needs are met by the 

distractions of mass culture (326). 






107 
Yet Kracauer's writings manifest an ambivalence about the potential value of 

mass culture as a diversion. On one level, he ctitiques mass culture's (specifically, 
cinema's) capacity to distract/divett the viewer's attention from his/her reality as an 
oppressed, creatively-dead worker. Yet the answer doesn't lie in a return to 
contemplation, but rather in somehow mobilizing the distraction for social reform. The 
mechanized, "empty" mode of the distraction naturally accommodates the worker's 
need for mindless entertainment: "Here in pure externality, the audience encounters 
itself; its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense 
impressions." Thus the distraction contains the potential to make the worker conscious 
of his/her alienated existence. "Were this reality to remain hidden from the viewers, 
they could neither attack nor change it; its disclosure in distraction is therefore of moral 
significance." Kracauer specifies, "But this is the case only if distraction is not an end in 
itself (326). 

Exactly haw the distraction might be mobilized for social change remains unclear 
in Kracauer's writings. He suggests that by simply exposing itself as a disordered 
amalgam and eliminating the pretense of "artistic unity," the distraction might force 
the masses to realize that their status as workers within industrial capitalism rests on a 
similar pretense of wholeness. As alienated workers, the masses lack creative, 
emotional, and spiritual fulfillment. "Such a lack demands to be compensated, but this 
need can be articulated only in terms of the same surface sphere that imposed the lack 
in the first place" (325). Kracauer opposed the lavish "picture palaces" that "festoon" 
the distraction with a sacred aura, attempting through ostentatious architecture to 



108 
unify the theater-goers and provide respite from their anarchic existence: "The interior 

design of movie theaters serves one sole purpose: to rivet the viewers' attention to the 

peripheral, so that they will not sink into the abyss" (325). Thus we infer that 

Kracauer believes viewers should sink into the abyss-perhaps such an experience would 

awaken them to the material conditions of their existence and incite them to action. 

Kracauer's notion of "sinking into the abyss" resembles Adorno's critique of 
cinema's false "unity" that I've examined elsewhere. Both Adorno and Kracauer 
manifest an anxiety about cinema's capacity to naturalize unjust material conditions, 
and seem to suggest that foregrounding mise-en-scene might remedy this problem. 
Adorno argues that cinema's ability to "flawlessly. . . duplicate empirical objects" causes 
the audience to equate the screen world with reality, and thereby apply the morals of 
the movies to their own lives (Adorno and Horkheimer 34). Like Adorno, Kracauer 
believes that the audience equates cinematic reality with their lived experience; further, 
this equation enables their acceptance of an unjust society. 

Though Kracauer doesn't elaborate on how cinema might counter this 
stupefying tendency, he suggests that a large part of the problem lies in the awkward 
narrative conventions that induce a false sense of closure and wholeness, often 
displacing a complex societal problem onto a resolvable conflict between individuals. 
He criticizes popular cinema for "unjustifiably deflect[ing] an inordinate amount of 
attention from the external damages of society onto the private individual" (Kracauer 
326). The viewers learn to blame a malicious individual (their boss, for example) for 
their problems rather than critique the social and economic conditions (industrial 



109 
capitalism) that undergird their situation. In his essay "Film 1928," Kracauer attempts 

to explain why film production (with very little exception) is "stupid, false, and often 
mean." He argues that the majority of narratives are conscious or unconscious 
avoidance maneuvers" (Kracauer 31 3). When these narratives do depict a genuine 
problem, they minimize its material reality by appealing to a "theological" solution: 
"They value predestination more than unions, or at any rate, they choose from among 
the laborers and white-collar workers. . . only some isolated poor person who is then 
allowed to become blessed" (309). In this sense, the narratives distract the viewer from 
his/her sometimes brutal reality, masking the unjust economic system with a temporary 
fantasy of deliverance. 

At a crucial point in Kracauer's theory, the his/her distinction becomes 
particularly relevant-his article "The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies," specifices a 
female audience as exemplifying this negative side of diversion. As Sabine Hake writes, 
"The negative attribution of diversion to the feminine helps explain the concepts' 
hidden ambivalences and obvious gray areas as an evasion of the urgent issues behind 
it-most of all the social and political emancipation of women and the identification of 
the feminine as a threat to the bourgeoisie" (148). The revolutionary potential of 
distraction that he attributes to popular cinema involves a critical interpretation of 
films. He sees the "social importance of film as that of a medium for whose audience 
the critical and receptive aspects coincide" (Hake 154). He suggests that the 
superficiality of cinematic entertainment mimics the emptiness of the workday, and 
that awareness of this reality contains its undoing -- he imagines a "kind of distraction 



110 
that exposes disintegration instead of masking it" (Kracauer 328). Though the 

particulars of this potential remain unclear, immediately clear is his belief that female 

audiences are incapable of critically, or even self-consciously approaching cinema. "In 

all his essays," Hake writes, "Kracauer evaded the impact of an audience of women by 

pushing it aside through an act of disqualification, as 'little shopgirls'" (159). 

The "little shopgirls" Kracauer addresses completely invest themselves in the 
"stupid" narratives, directly applying the movie lessons to their own lives. He 
attributes to the female audience a thoroughly non-cognitive, entirely emotional 
investment in the narrative. To exemplify, he offers a "small collection of samples 
whose textbook cases are subjected to moral causitry" (294). He describes several films 
and imagines the little shopgirls' reactions. For example, after viewing The Modern 
Haroun al Raschid, a Cinderella-esque movie in which a young billionaire disguises his 
wealth in order to find true love, Krcauer writes, "If the little shopgirls were 
approached tonight by an unknown gentleman, they would take him to be one of the 
famous millionaires from the illustrated magazines" (302). After viewing The Golden 
Heart, a movie that exposes the truly loving and sentimental nature of a seemingly 
ruthless businessman, "The little shopgirls learn to understand that their brilliant boss 
is made of gold on the inside as well; they await the day when they can revive a young 
Berliner with their silly little hearts" (300). 

Significantly, Kracauer's condemnation of the shopgirls' reactions considers only 
the narratives of the films. He attributes to the female audience a thoroughly non- 
critical, unambiguous identification with the narrative of each film he examines. Thus 



Ill 

he not only slights an entire female audience via condescension and simplification, but 
by reducing each film to its plot, he denies the complexity of cinema. Such a view fails 
to account for cinematic excess, denying the importance of mise-en-scene and its ability to 
work against the narrative. On one level, Kracauer seems to find potential in the 
fantasies projected in popular films of the late twenties— he writes that "film fantasies 
are the daydreams of society, in which its actual reality comes to the fore and its otherwise 
repressed wishes take on form" (292). His provocative essay on the Tiller Girls comes 
to mind, as a perfect example of repressed wishes taking on form, but in the context of 
the "little shopgirls," he equates these fantasies with only narratives— "stupid and 
unreal" narratives such as the two I've summarized. 

My examination of Prix de Beaute engages this notion of film fantasies as the 
daydreams of society, viewing the mise-en-scene as a repository for repressed fantasies and 
desires. The film addressed working-class female spectators and their repressed (or 
perhaps not so repressed) wishes to manage their own lives, become economically 
independent, and partake in the exciting pleasures of modern urban life. When Andre 
says to Lucienne, "don't even dream of it," he refers not only to the beauty contest, but 
to modernity in general. But neither Andre's condemnation nor the narrative's 
denouement negate the unrealized potentials that lie dormant in the film's visual 
tropes. 

A Mise-en-scene of Desire and the Fldneuse 

Whereas Kracauer describes cinematic fantasy as an emotional counterpart to 
false-consciousness, more recent theorists have addressed the potential liberatory 



112 
aspects of fantasy. Feminist theorist Elizabeth Cowie counters the narrative model of 

fantasy that Kracauer represents with a more subtle, visually-based model. She notes 

that the word "fantasy" derives from the Greek term meaning "to make visible"~an 

etymology that supports her claim that "fantasy is not the object of desire, but its 

setting." Cowie suggests that "fantasy involves. . . not the achievement of desired 

objects, but the arranging of, a setting out of desire; a veritable mise-en-scene of desire" 

(Cowie 133). This notion of fantasy complicates Kracauer's simplistic explanation of 

the little shopgirls' investment in cinematic narrative. Whereas Kracauer's notion of 

fantasy resembles Mulvey's model of curiosity based on intellectual investigation and 

narrative problem-solving, Cowie's model conforms to counter-narrative, visual 

curiosity that distinguishes the cinema of attractions and the theorists ofphotogenie. 

Unlike Kracauer's shopgirls, the women spectators Cowie addresses are not 

duped by the stupefying powers of mass culture: "We do not take the character's 

desire as our own, but identify with the character's position of desire in relation to other 

characters" (140). Far from equating screen-reality with their own lived reality, these 

savvy spectators are willing participants in the suspension of disbelief entailed in every 

narrative film. She writes, 

Film has long been considered a domain of wish fulfilment and fantasy . 
. . . what has been argued here, however, is that this is not a retreat to 
unreality, an avoidance of life's harsh truths, or an unfortunate hangover 
of childhood and typical of the foolish, the weak, and of women. 
Fantasy is as necessary an aspect of adulthood as of childhood. It not 
only involves the satisfaction of wishes that are unrealisable in reality, 
but also and perhaps more importantly, public forms of fantasy involve 
the representation of the impossibility of the wish [even as they make] 
possible the very scene of the wish. (163) 



113 
Thus whether or not the narrative fulfills the fantasy remains irrelevant; what matters 

is that the fantasy gives voice to the unconscious desires of a community. 

Further, Cowie's notion of fantasy counters rigid "apparatus theory" and 

manifests an affinity with the more fluid, eccentric model of photogenie. She argues that 

the narrative positionings of fantasy are not gender-specific: "Fantasy fails. . . to 

produce the fixed and polarised positions. . . of men and women required for a feminist 

politics basing itself on a theory of patriarchy." Rather, the subject positions remain 

open to any viewer who identifies with the desire. Additionally, this notion of fantasy 

as the "mise-en-scene of desire" typically functions against the narrative: "the linear 

progression of narrative is disturbed and re-ordered by the drive of fantasy, disrupting 

the possibility of a coherent or unified enunciating position" (164). Cowie's theory 

considers the ambiguous nuances of visual culture-vital not only to a reading of Prix de 

Beaute, but to any film-neglected by so much psychoanalytic feminist film theory. 

In Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, Anne Friedberg provides a 

feminine model for this distracted spectator: the flaneuse. The possibility oU flaneuse 

further complicates the gender-specific looking relations of apparatus theory, as it 

enunciates a female counterpart to Baudelaire's and Benjamin's celebrated flaneur. 

Friedberg argues that in the 19th Century, shopping became a respectable activity for 

unchaperoned women, granting them the active power of the gaze. As women were 

"allowed a new and more public access to mobility through urban space," they 

developed "a new set of social prerogatives in which their powerlessness was crossed 

with new paradoxes of subjective power" (Friedberg 35). No longer the mere objects of 



114 
the male gaze, women became desiring subjects in their own right. Friedberg writes, 

"just as Benjamin will claim the film as an explosive that 'burst' the nineteenth-century 

world 'asunder,' the flaneuse broke out of an equivalent 'prison-world' - into the public 

spectacle of consumption" (44). That the flaneuse' s newfound freedom remains 

intimately linked to her role as a capitalist consumer does not negate the implications 

of this active, mobile gaze for film theory. In fact, as we see in Prix de Beaute, this 

desiring female gaze "bursts asunder" a multitude of deeply ingrained traditions. 

Window Shopping relates this mobile gaze of the flaneuse to the mobile and virtual 

gaze of the cinematic spectator, a relationship that proves crucial to a reading of Prix de 

Beaute. Characteristic of Prix de Beaute are broad tableaux-of street scenes, of crowds, 

of luxurious interiors. Friedberg argues that shots such as these function similarly to 

shop windows: "the show window seems to bear a clear analogy to the cinema screen. 

A tableau is framed and as it is placed behind glass it is made inaccessible" (66). The 

particular free-floating, Neorealist style of many shots in Prix de Beaute contributes to 

this effect. The eye is less guided than in typical Hollywood films, and the narrative at 

times takes a back seat to the objects on the screen. This style invites the viewer to 

partake in Lucienne's pleasurable encounters with modern commodities. 

In an obvious parallel to "window shopping," Lucienne displays the modern 

fashions bestown upon her after becoming Miss France. She persuses her closet, 

holding various garments up to her body. She comments, "Pretty, eh? Look at my 

dresses. . . an evening gown. Pretty, eh? And this one. . ." These comments address 

the cinema spectator as much as the narrative characters, corresponding to the 












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"window shopping" notion of film spectatorship. As Friedberg writes, "Window- 
shopping implies a mode of consumer contemplation; a speculative regard to the mise- 
en-scene of the display window without the commitment to enter the store or to make a 
purchase. Cinema spectatorship relies on an equally distanced contemplation: a 
tableau, framed and inaccessible, not behind glass, but on the screen" (68). What 
interests me here is the notion of cinematic "window-shopping" as a mode 
characterized by contemplation and distance-the two attributes Kracauer deems 
impossible for the female audience he imagines. Friedberg imagines a mode of 
"consumer contemplation," a term Kracauer would undoubtedly label an oxymoron. 
Yet by imagining "consumer contemplation," Friedberg bridges the contemplation and 
distraction models, and perhaps comes closer to imagining the progressive possibilities 
of "distraction" than does Kracauer himself. 

The "glue of sentimentality" does not hold Prix de Beaute together. Images of 
machinery, loudspeakers, magazines, modern fashions, newspapers, and cinema itself 
proliferate in the film, producing a tension between the mise-en-scene and the narrative. 
This tension exists in any narrative film, but the style of Prix de Beaute renders its 
narrative particularly vulnerable to disruption. The frequent "newsreel" style of the 
movie anticipates the Neorealist aesthetic and functions similarly, enabling 
the mise-en-scene to exist for its own sake, independent of narrative motivation. The film 
thus invites a critical intervention that mimics the form of the distraction itself, 
whereby "its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense 
impressions" (326). 






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Figure 4-1. Window 1: "The style of an epoch asserts itself." 
In this spirit of window shopping, let us contemplate for a moment the 
garments Lucienne displays for us— the streamlined, satin, fur-trimmed, bias-cut 
gowns, coats, and ensembles that complete her transformation. We find that 
Lucienne's emancipated wardrobe was designed by Jean Patou, a prominent "pioneer" 
of modern fashion. In the 1920s, Patou openly lauded the machine age, declaring that 
"To be modern is to have the thought, the tastes, and the instincts of the epoch in 
which one lives" (Etherington-Smith 16). He praised the Futurists' love of speed and 
movement, qualities he appropriated for modern design. Reflecting this avant-garde 
joy in modernity's technologies, Patou proclaimed, "May our furniture, our clothing, 
the machinery we use, be quite of the same family. It is thus that we shall build 
ourselves a personal home, representative of our epoch, but also of our minds" 
(Etherington-Smith 93). His designs prescribed a female wardrobe that approximated 
the form-fitting, streamlined male suit, as he first made a name for himself by 



117 
"inventing" women's sportswear and feminizing the values of the Gteat Masculine 

Renunciation. As his biographer writes, "His clothes were always conceived for ease of 

movement, they always have an element of hurry and dash about them" (Etherington- 

Smith 37). He applied the same principles of simplicity and movement to his entire 

collection, from swimsuits to evening gowns. Patou's designs, like the women who 

bought them, scoffed in the face of tradition, and anticipated woman's place in the 

machine age. He declares, "We are not really at ease and we do not feel completely at 

home except in the midst of modern machinery. This latter has been perfected to the 

point of attaining real beauty in which the style of the epoch asserts itself 

(Etherington-Smith 91). The mise-en-scene of Prix de Beaute similarly celebrates the 

beauty of machinery, often framing the characters within the turning gears and 

interchangable mechanisms of the printing press, portraying them "at home" in the 

modern setting. The film stills reveal the geometric framing of the machinery, but 

cannot capture, of course, the frenzy of movement that characterizes these shots. 




Figure 4-2. "At home in the midst of modern machinery." 



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The shots of Lucienne in her Patou fashions similarly reflect the geometry and 

movement of modern machinery. In fact, once Lucienne becomes Miss Europe and 

receives her Patou wardrobe, she bursts into a flurry of activity, rendering the fashions 

nearly impossible to capture in a single film still. The art deco interior of Lucienne's 

apartment frames her Patou-clad body much as the printing press frames the male 

workers. "Lines and circles like those found in textbooks of Euclidean geometry" frame 

the workers in the print factory, characterize the interchangable bodies of the beauty 

contestants, and compose the decor of Lucienne's modern apartment. In short, 

modernity in Prix de Beaute finds its formal realization in Kracauer's "mass ornament" 

(Kracauer 77). 

The mass ornament, an ambiguous phenomenon embodied in the "Tiller Girls," 
reflects the complex relationship between women and technology in Prix de Beaute. 
Kracauer writes that "emanations of spiritual life remain excluded" from the mass 
ornament, which merely reflects the "capitalist production process," an undeniably 
reprehensible process for Kracauer. Yet "no matter how low one gauges the value of 
the mass ornament, its degree of reality is still higher than that of artistic productions 
which cultivate outdated noble sentiments in obsolete forms" (79). Similarly, the 
ergonomic fragmentation of organic forms that undergirds the beauty pageant imposes 
both limitations and new opportunities for women in the 1920s. 

In her history of the beauty pageant, Lois Banner reminds us that this emphasis 
on physical beauty, with all its oppressive implications, supplanted an even more 
oppressive feminine ideal of the "angel in the house." She writes, "When in the 1920s 



119 
women no longer were seen as possessing a superior spirituality, their outward 

appearance could be viewed as more important than their inner character, and external 

means could become central to improving their looks" (Banner 208). This emphasis on 

women's physicality, which manifests overwhelmingly negative consequences in 

contemporary culture, contained traces of Utopian "wish-images" in the context of Prix 

de Beaute. Forgoing her traditional role as the caregiving, morally superior "angel in the 

house," Lucienne embraces the physicality and mobility that modern technologies 

disseminate through everyday life in the forms of clothing and decor. 




Figure 4-3. Window 2: The International Style, dissolving national characteristics. 
Kracauer's anxiety over the mass ornament points to the debate over 
technology's role in homogenizing Western culture. The increasing application of 
mathematical principles— to factory work, to the human body, and to art—in the early 
20th century diminishes both individual, and national eccentricities. "A system 



120 
oblivious to differences in form leads on its own to the blurring of national 

characteristics and to the production of worker masses that can be employed equally 

well at any point on the globe" (Kracauer 78). This "blurring of national 

characteristics" is brilliantly narrativized and visualized in Prix de Beaute. 

The Parisian newspaper Le Globe, for which Lucienne works, publicizes the 
beauty contest in both print and in auditory announcements on the city streets. Like 
the machinery of the printing press, the loudspeaker becomes a "character" in its own 
right. As workers flood the city streets, the speaker demands their attention. Masses 
of men and women congregate around the speaker inscribed with the newspaper's 
name, watching it with concentrated fascination as they hear its message: "Le Globe, 
your great illustrated daily with ten full pages has been named by the St. Sebastian 
Festival Committee to select the prettiest girl in France. Miss! You in the street! 
Maybe you're Miss Europe. . ." The beauty contest, which on one hand celebrates 
nationalism, also contributes to its erasure. The contestants, dressed in similar fashions, 
with similar hairstyles, reflect the mechanized form of Kracauer's "Tiller Girls" as they 
parade across the stage. Their names, nationalities, and bodily measurements appear in 
the pageant's program — though they manifest different origins, they are all subject to 
the same mathematical principles. 

Five years before the production of Prix de Beaute, Jean Patou made his own 
international statement, stirring up both the excitement and anxiety popularly felt over 
the continued blurring of national boundaries. After an American journalist, alluding 
to his pragmatic philosophy, declared Patou "the French couturier with an American 



121 
mind," Patou decided to feature six American models in his much-anticipated 1925 

collection. He likely anticipated the amount of press this move would receive. "In 
France the news that Patou was importing American models led to pointed comments 
in the press along the lines of 'taking the bread from the mouths of the French 
mannequins'" (Etherington-Smith 83). Nevertheless, the anticipation of witnessing 
this iconoclastic event and brushing elbows with these long-limbed American creatures 
eventually outweighed national pride, as both the 1925 collection and its ceremonial 
unveiling were well-received. In his typically theatrical manner, Patou began the show 
with a demonstration: "He brought both the French and American mannequins on for 
their first entrance in single fde, dressed only in the little toile wrappers they wore in the 
dressing room between fittings," showing that "the female form, whatever the 
nationality, still comprised head, limbs and torso— and was all a dressmaker had to 
work with" (87). Again, the mathematical principles of ergonomics render national 
difference illegible. Fittingly, the audience of this fashion show represented the 
modern, international set; among the diverse observers was, of course, Louise Brooks. 

Brooks, an American actress most famous for her European roles, was well- 
versed in the "international style." She achieved international celebrity when G.W. 
Pabst chose her to play Lulu in Pandora's Box in 1928. Pabst's search for Lulu has been 
compared to the search for Scarlett O'Hara a decade later in the scope of its hype, 
publicity, and even controversy, as many German's resented a non-native Lulu. In 
contrast, the French overwhelmingly embraced Brooks, declaring her "European in 
spirit" and filling shop windows with her portrait. Paris hairdressers even advertised 



122 
coiffures a la Louise Brooks (Paris 335). Prix de Beaute was international, though and 

through: it was produced in France, directed by an Italian, starring an American made 

famous by her German roles. 

Despite the film's apparent celebration of internationalism, an ominous figure 

shadows the pageant, reminding us that "International Style" really translates to 

American/European style. Lurking among the celebrants of the Miss Europe pageant is 

an Indian maharajah, a largely silent, inactive character who nevertheless poses a 

sinister threat to Lucienne. He first appears in the audience, nose held high, gloved 

hand slowly stroking his moustache as he evaluates the contestants. But his gaze 

differs from the others. The others smile, laugh, and cheer for their favorite, while the 




Figure 4-4. "Maharaja-icity" 
maharajah merely nods when Lucienne appears. He approaches her after the pageant, 
at her honorary celebration. While the others dance, he states, "In my country we 






123 
don't foxtrot or tango. Out dances are sacred. It takes years to learn them." His 

speech, actions, and appearance manifest what Barthes might call "Maharaja-icity," as 

he embodies all the popular stereotypes of the wealthy, mysterious, and swarthy Indian 

prince. 

Perhaps more specifically, the Maharajah enacts Edward Said's notion of 

Orientalism, as a "European invention, a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting 

memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences" (Said 1). Within the film's 

narrative, the maharajah serves to legitimate Andre's fears. Lucienne's newfound 

mobility —economic, social, and ideological— places her within the grasp of such 

ominous creatures. In a typically "Orientalist" move, the film displaces the possessive, 

colonizing values of the West onto an imaginative East. Cornering Lucienne in the 

garden, the maharajah intimates, "One night in India at the quiet hour when lions 

drink, I dreampt of a young girl. I've recognized her. It's you. Love clutches me like 

an eagle. I possess a land larger than Europe. . . yet without you, my life would be 

exile." As Peter Wollen writes, this fantasy of Orientalism was "modernism's 

symptomatic shadow from the very beginning" (Wollen 29). This ornamental, colorful 

and dangerously licentious portrayal of the East surfaces in many films of the 1920s 

and 30s, influenced by the imagery of The Thousand and One Nights, a popular ballet 

"full of tales of deviant, transgressive and bizarre sexuality" (6). In Prix de Beaute, the 

maharajah's resolute gaze and enigmatic speech situate him within this ancient 

tradition of slavery and sexual deviance. His desire to possess Lucienne thus illuminates 

a truly oppressive (albeit imaginative) tradition, against which Andre's possessiveness. 



124 




Figure 4-5. Window 3: Time, Tradition, and Technology 
In "Domesticating Modernity: Ambivalence and Appropriation, 1920-40," 
Jeffrey L. Meikle examines how modernity's fast pace led to a heightened awareness of 
time in the 1920s and 30s. From advertising's emphasis on being "up to the minute" 
and "in touch with the times" to Mussolini's promise to "make the trains run on time," 
efficiency infiltrated daily discourse. This sudden emphasis on punctuality and speed 
disconcerted many people: "Despite continuing celebration of machine-age progress 
evidenced by the popularity of streamlining in both Europe and the U.S.A., many 
people feared the disappearance of the past or a melting away of tradition" (Meikle 
147). As a result, Meikle argues, advertisements and artworks of the time attempted 
to integrate the new into the old, depicting modern technologies as merely a 
continuation of previous practices. 

The cuckoo clock in Prix de Beaute perfectly exemplifies this integration of old 
and new. Two scenes in the movie portray Lucienne's distaste for domesticity by 



125 
juxtaposing her chores— ironing, washing clothes, preparing dinner— with shots of this 

"cuckoo-ing" clock, which are then juxtaposed with the image of a caged canary. The 

obvious symbolism-Lucienne, herself a caged canary, is going "cuckoo" as each 

unstimulating moment slowly and loudly "tick-tocks" by-grows more complex when 

we examine the specific form of the clock and juxtapose its deployment with the other 

prominent time-measurer in the movie, the "huge timer" that measures the length of 

audience applause for each contestant in the Miss Europe contest. 

Friedrich Kittler discusses how time-storing devices must "arrest the daily data 
flow in order to turn it into images or signs" (Kittler 3). The ornate cuckoo clock, 
then, signifies a very different notion of duration than does the utilitarian timer that 
"scientifically" gauges applause. As Kittler writes, "all data flows" must "pass through 
the bottleneck of the signifier" (4). Though the cuckoo clock and the timer function by 
the same measurements-each of their minutes holds the same sixty seconds-their 
presentation of that information differs drastically, and reflects the context in which 
they appear. 

The cuckoo clock that appears in the home of Lucienne and Andre has its roots 
in the 17th century artisanal tradition of the German peasantry who hand-carved 
"Black Forest Clocks." These wooden clocks attempted to integrate the artificial 
measurement of duration that increasingly characterized modernity with the organic, 
folk tradition of the peasantry. The carved leaves and boisterous, chirping bird 
metonymically linked the clocks to the forest itself, a nostalgic image of "times passed." 
In his study of material culture, Clifford E. Clark suggests that "the preoccupation with 



126 
loud clocks in the nineteenth century heightened the consciousness of the passage of 

time and was part of a preoccupation that made memory itself into a major popular 

obsession" (Clark 77). The clock that measures Lucienne's misery indeed reflects this 

obsession with memory— in fact, it imposes the heavy weight of memory and tradition 

onto Lucienne, reminding her with every chirp of the conventions that confine her. 




Figure 4-6. Huge Timer. 
Whereas Lucienne's restlessness is juxtaposed with images of the cuckoo clock, 
Andre's anxiousness is linked to images of the newfangled timer that measures 
audience applause and thus justifies Lucienne's victory. The pageant announcer 
proclaims, "For the first time, a beauty contest will have no official jury. You [the 
audience} will select the most beautiful one. Huge timers will record the time of your 
applause. The contestant with the longest time will be the winner. . ." Again, the film 
heralds the quantifiable measurement of phenomena previously gauged by qualitative 



127 
judgement. The scene at the beauty pageant where this timer often takes center-stage 

is cross-cut with images of a miserable Andre on the train en route to the pageant. 
Lucienne was pronounced "Miss France" and whisked away to Spain so quickly that she 
didn't have a chance to bid Andre farewell. Instead, he reads of her journey in the 
newspaper. In this fast-paced modern world, time is not on Andre's side. Rather, he 
clings to memories of the past, when Lucienne desired nothing more than to become 
his bride. The "huge timer," with its starkly utilitarian appearance represents the 
changing times that incite Andre's wrath. 

"A Tempting Trace of the Film's Potential" 
A close examination of the film's mise-en-scene suggests that Prix de Beaute 
doesn't narrativize what Doane calls the "abstraction of women" any more than any 
film narrativizes the abstraction of individuals. Rather, the film addresses something 
much more historically specific-it displays the opportunities and consequences entailed in 
women's assimilation into the increasingly quantifiable, mechanized world traditionally 
coded as masculine. An analysis that mimics the fetish-friendly process of "window- 
shopping" illuminates the tropes that underlie the film. For example, when we focus 
on the Patou fashions, the moralizing narrative "falls apart at the seams," and we gain a 
greater understanding of cinema's inherently fragmented, discontinuous foundation. 
Cinema comprises the ultimate distraction, echoing the fldneuse's wandering path as she 
engages the sensual pleasures of modern imagery that train her to articulate her desires. 
The largely visual, irrational role of film fantasy as demonstrated by Elizabeth Cowie 
corresponds to photogenie's celebration of the sensual pleasures of the fleeting image. 



128 
Further, Cowie and Friedberg show that the photogenic perspective is not sexually- 
determined. Rather, the position is occupied by both the male flaneur and the female 
fldneuse, two figures united by their pleasure in the free-floating imagery of modernity. 

Leo Charney argues that particular theorists of modernity attempted to redeem 
the loss of tradition and memory that accompanied modernity with a philosophy of the 
"moment." He describes how both Jean Epstein's version of photogenie, and Walter 
Benjamin's notion of distraction valorize "the sensual, bodily, prerational responses that 
retain the prerogative to occupy a present moment" (Charney 281). He likens this 
philosophy to a method of analysis, which for Benjamin involved "a peripatetic 
meditation or flanerie in which everything chanced upon en route becomes a potential 
direction his thoughts might take" (283). Modern life, its artforms, and thus its 
criticism, is marked by "the fleeting, fragmentary, and shocking." When we consider 
early cinema in this historical context, the final scene of Prix de Beaute appears less to 
demonstrate the cinematic apparatus than to commemorate technology's ability to 
capture the fleeting moment. 

In fact, as Brooks' biography recounts, the 1930 critics of the film were 
consistent on one judgement: the technical realization of the final scene was 
marvelous. The direction of the final scene was allegedly the only scene left according 
to the plans of the original director, Rene Clair. Brooks' biographer calls the scene "one 
of the most visually spellbinding climaxes in all of film." The British journal Close Up 
declared, "Its remarkable ending redeems the previous passages, whose very mediocrity 
emphasizes the ending's splendor. At last, a morsel of true sound technique." 



129 
Similarly, Catherine Ann Surowiec writes that "The final flickering images of Prix de 

Beaute are unforgettable," pronouncing the final scene "a tempting trace of the film's 

potential" (Paris 343). Indeed, we might see the entire film as a tempting trace of the 

distraction's potential. 



CHAPTER 5 
ACCESSORIES AFTER THE FACT 



What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art,not 
usurp its place? 

—Susan Sontag 

. . . here begins the fetish. 

—Roland Barthes 

I have examined how the spectator of popular cinema negotiates a tension 
between the rational drive of a forward-moving narrative and the irrational pleasures of 
mise-en-scene that threaten to forestall that narrative. Chapter 1 located the historical 
roots of this tension in the meeting of science and aesthetics that distinguishes the 
modern commodity. The following two chapters suggested that particular film 
theories favor different sides of the nartativc/mise-en-scene continuum: While grand 
theories of the cinematic "apparatus" favor the rational forces of narrative with its 
demand for totalization and closure, the fragmented and eccentric theories oiphotogenie 
seize upon the excesses of the fleeting image. 

Examining "film theory's two traditions," Robert Ray writes that the 
Impressionist-Surrealist tradition oiphotogenie has been eclipsed by the overtly political 
rigor of post- 1968 film theory that derives from Eisenstein. Whereas photogenie is 
rooted in a Bazinian realism that values the camera's automatism, the Eisensteinian 
tradition relies upon the artist's ability to impose meanings onto the images. Ray terms 



130 



131 
the Eisensteinian approach semiotic— "using that term as a shorthand way of 

summarizing the structuralist, ideological, psychoanalytic, and gender theory it 

encompassed" (Ray 73). Though this semiotic tradition has proved invaluable to a 

politically-aware film criticism, Ray reminds us that "these gains did not come free of 

charge." He questions whether "the rational, politically sensitive Eisenstein tradition" 

can "reunite with the Impressionist-Surrealist interest mphotogenie and automatism" 

(74). This chapter attempts to bridge that chasm by enacting an experiment that both 

critiques and enjoys cinema's visual pleasures, remaining simultaneously "semiotic" and 

"impressionistic." The method I imagine parallels the method one critic attributes to 

Charles Baudelaire: 

The starting point is nearly always volupte— the shock of pleasure 
experienced in front of a work of art; the poet-critic then proceeds to 
examine and analyse the pourquoi— the why and the wherefore— until 
finally he is able to transform this initial shock of pleasure into 
knowledge — the volupte into connaissance. (Mayne x) 

Because much film criticism begins with the a priori assumption (deriving from Adorno 

and Horkheimer's analysis of the "culture industry") that all movies produced within a 

capitalist society necessarily promote false consciousness, many critics distrust their own 

experience of volupte, and certainly distrust the commodity's ability to give this shock of 

pleasure. In contrast, I take as my starting point a series of film stills chosen precisely 

for their ability to elicit my visual pleasure. Like Louis Aragon, my criticism celebrates 

cinema's depiction of "the obsessive beauty of commercial inscriptions, posters, 

evocative lettering, really common objects, everything that celebrates our life, not some 

artificial convention that excludes corned beef and tins of polish" (Aragon 28). This 



132 
transformation from Art to commodity-as-artifact forms a cornerstone of modernity, 
and indeed, distinguishes the insights of Baudelaire's "painter of modern life." Aragon 
cites Baudelaire as a prophet of modernity, who, (well before the time of Picasso, 
Braque, and Gris) "knew the import you could draw from a sign" (29). 

This chapter, then, takes its place in the Impressionist-Surrealist tradition 
anticipated by Baudelaire and proposes a method of film analysis that tests the limits of 
"the import [one can] draw from a sign." I appropriate the distracted mode of 
"consumer contemplation" embodied in Baudelaire's "painter of modern life," the male 
flaneur, and the female fldneuse. Each of these modern pioneers anticipates the 
fetishistic logic of cinema, wandering about the city much as a viewer's attention 
wanders through a movie, following a narrative thread like a guiding sidewalk, but 
pausing here and there to absorb the scenery. 

Similarly, this chapter perambulates through several movies, stopping to 
contemplate various frames that function as shop windows, full of artfully-arranged 
commodities that elicit a signifying excess. In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau 
proposes a rhetoric of "walking in the city": "The walking of passers-by offers a series of 
turns {tours) and detours that can be compared to 'turns of phrase' or stylistic figures.' 
There is a rhetoric of walking" (de Certeau 100). My analysis reflects this "rhetoric of 
walking," as I pause to consider particular accessories here and there, mere ornaments 
that may or may not achieve relevance in the film's plot, but house useful knowledge 
nonetheless. I choose the accessories by the logic of my own desire, isolating scenes 



133 
that, like Barthes' third meanings, "demand an interrogative reading" that encourages 

turns of phrase and poetic detours (Barthes 53). 

I find the trope of the "accessory" particularly compelling in this context, for its 
definition works on many levels. An accessory can be a literal ornament, a piece of 
jewelry or other adornment that accompanies an ensemble. More generally, the 
accessory is "an object or device not essential in itself, but adding to the beauty, 
convenience, or effectiveness of something else"— a definition that perfectly summarizes 
the role of mise-en-scene in narrative cinema. And even more suggestively, the accessory 
(after the fact) is "one who knowing that a crime has been committed aids or shelters 
the offender with intent to defeat justice." In this manner, all cinematic decor 
functions as accessories, aiding and abetting in cinema's spell over the consumer. They 
present themselves as mere spectacle, dazzling ornaments that adorn the narrative. But 
by interrogating these accessories, we begin to understand that these objects do indeed 
shelter knowledge. 

The stop-motion, recontextualization strategy outlined in Walter Benjamin's 
notes for the Arcades Project seems especially appropriate in this context, as these 
fragments of image and analysis function like the "dialectical images." Benjamin 
develops his theory of the dialectical image "as a means of condensing, into a verbal 
flash, a few brief sentences or phrases which are simultaneously a representation of and 
a critique of a cultural event or item" (McRobbie 107). He posits that specific 
commodities, "everyday objects of industrial culture," typically promote a soporific 
state in the consumer, who, rather than contemplating commodities and his/her 






134 



relation to them, merely views them as the latest fashion— items to consume and 
replace when something newer comes along. In short, commodities induce the spell of 
capitalism. Benjamin argues that "underneath the rationalization which creates the 
possibility of urban modernity. . . lies a much more mythical landscape, a kind of 
undergrowth of chaos and abundance, of new consumer goods which . . . can be viewed 
as a series of heavily iconographic signs and symbols" (110). 

"Accessories After the Fact" appropriates Benjamin's ideas about commodities, 
using a stop-motion strategy to extract specific images from films, "interrupt the 
context into which they have been inserted" and perform an interrogative reading that 
recontextualizes the object in its relation to the film and the culture at large. 





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Figure 5-1. Synthetic Realities. 
This first "screen memory" comes from the train window scene in Possessed that I 
discussed in the Introduction. Both thematically and formally, this scene embodies the 















135 
issues at stake in popular cinema's relationship to the female spectator. Narratively, it 
emblematizes the way so many Hollywood movies of the 20s and 30s link women's 
desires to concrete commodities. And formally, it displays the tension between the 
forward-moving narrative (represented by the train's purposeful movement) and the 
ornamental detail of any particular shot (represented by the attractions of each discrete 
tableau). This scene reminds us that at any moment within narrative cinema, the 
decorative details of a single shot threaten to distract the viewer from the purposeful 
narrative. And indeed, the displays within the train windows divert Marian's (Joan 
Crawford) purposeful walk home from another day of work at the cardboard box 
factory. 

Like the shop window or the publicite poster, the tableau in the train window 
utters the silent, but emphatic, expression of visual language, linking the easily- 
attainable commodity to a distant ideal. "With publicite (as Henri Clouzot pointed out 
in relation to the boutiques on show in the 1924 Salon d'Automne), the scene of 
seduction had shifted from the boudoir to the street" (Gronberg 74). Indeed, the train 
window of Possessed literalizes this notion, as the boudoir is now on the street. The 
silence that distinguishes Marian's enraptured attentiveness to the passing train in 
Possessed finds its cinematic parallel in episodes of erotic contemplation, scenes which 
justify a narrative caesura and invite the viewer to participate in the unsated gaze of 

lovers. 

Let us consider the third train window: An elegantly-coiffed woman, wearing a 
lace chemise, delicately inspects a pair of silk stockings, the foundational garments that 



136 
enable the final episode of eroticism, the accoutrements that underlie the scene of 
seduction. These mass-produced accessories— comprising the sartorial "back story" of 
the anonymous, idealized woman in the final window— lure Marian into a distant world 
of luxury and sensuality. They comprise a bridge between her life at the cardboard box 
factory and the life she dreams of, and by the end of the movie, possesses. Michel de 
Certeau writes that "the bridge is ambiguous everywhere: it alternately welds together 
and opposes insularities" (de Certeau 128). And as Possessed shows, the mass-produced 
commodity is indeed ambiguous— by linking material goods and Utopian longings, it 
provides respite from an unstimulating day of factory work, even as it enslaves Marian 
to the fickle and insatiable cycle of fashion. 

Traces of the commodity's Janus-faced nature lie within the stocking's 
etymological origins. As Possessed begins, Marion and Al join a mass of exhausted 
factory workers on their walk home. Al catches up with Marion and laments, "Hot 
ain't it?" "Awful," she responds. "Dying?" he asks. "Dead," she replies. Her cynical 
words, her slouching posture and her dejected expression signify the quintessential 
alienated worker. And indeed, she derives pleasure and inspiration not in creativity or 
human relationships, but in the luxuries she sees aboard the train. Gazing at the 
tableaux, her posture stiffens, and she reaches out her hand, animated by the dreams 
housed in each window. The vision of the elegant stockings enlivens her otherwise 
dreary day. Yet, traces of false-consciousness lie submerged in the very origins of the 
word— Stocking, derivative of the Latin stock, "a log or block of wood; something without 
life or consciousness; a dull, stupid, or lifeless person." 



137 

As the train's caboose stops in front of Marian, Wally appears. Leaning over the 
railing, champagne glass in hand, the jaded socialite taunts Marian: "Looking in? 
Wrong way. Get in and look out. . . There's only two kinds of people — the ones in, 
and the ones out." His next words, simultaneously sympathetic and disparaging, recall 
the universal message of advertising: "There's something wrong with you." Marian 
replies with a knowing confirmation: "There's everything wrong with me— My 
clothes, my shoes, my hands, the way I talk ... at least I know it." She understands 
the promise of the commodity, knows that changing her identity starts with changing 
her clothes. 

In The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben recalls a commercial for stockings, 
"Dim" stockings, that he saw in a Paris movie theater in the 1970s: "the movement of 
long legs sheathed in the same inexpensive commodity. . . wafted over the audience a 
promise of happiness unequivocally related to the human body." He relates the 
choreography of "Dim"-stockinged legs to "the process of capitalist commodification 
[that] began to invest the human body" in the 1920s, noted in Kracauer's reflections 
on the "Tiller Girls" and Benjamin's insights about the decay of aura (Agamben 47). 
Agamben confronts the commodity's ambiguous nature: "The commodification of the 
human body, while subjecting it to the iron laws of massification and exchange value, 
seemed at the same time to redeem the body from the stigma of ineffability that had 
marked it for millennia." The advertisement, linking the physical commodity to the 
metaphysical self, frees the body from "the double chains of biological destiny and 
individual biography," thus "emancipating} the human body from its theological 



138 
foundations" (47). Like the stockings in the passing train window, the commodity 
promises, and indeed delivers, an unprecedented mobility— it invites the consumer 
aboard, to "get in, and look out." 

Dress historian James Laver writes that the increasing availability of man-made 
fibers in the 1920s and 30s made artificial silk stockings available to "even the factory 
girl" (Laver 246). In the early 20th century, garment manufacturers concentrated their 
efforts on developing a synthetic alternative to silk, because it was the most luxurious 
and difficult to produce fabric. Authentic silk is produced only through a labor- 
intensive and risky agrarian process: silkworms, which feed only on a particular type of 
mulberry tree, produce the silk fibers to make their cocoons (Wilson 70-71). In 
contrast, the mass-production of artificial silk (first rayon, then nylon) depended on a 
man-made process of chemical synthesis. 

The mass-produced stockings, like the mass-produced commodity in general, 

represent a synthesis, a dialectical combination of thesis and antithesis— Benjamin's 

dialectical image, simultaneously embodying Utopia and nightmare. The commodity 

delivers industrialism's promise of abundance, of luxury for all classes, even as it 

alienates human beings from one another, displacing desire onto merchandise. 

Examining notes for his Arcades Project, Susan Buck-Morss addresses Benjamin's 

Utopian notion of cinema-as-"synthetic reality" : 

If industrialization has caused a crisis in perception due to the speeding 
up of time and the fragmentation of space, film shows a healing 
potential by slowing down time and, through montage, constructing 
"synthetic realities" as new spatio-temporal orders wherein the 
"fragmented images" are brought together "according to a new law.". . . 
Film provides the audience with a new capacity to study this modern 



139 

existence reflectively, from the "position of an expert." (Buck-Morss 
268). 

Thus the single pair of stockings replicates the condition of cinema in general, 
comprising a multi-layered mise-en-abyme . First, the train replicates the cinematic 
tension between purposeful narrative and distracting ornament; second, the stockings 
within the train window repeat the motif, representing a "synthetic reality" in both 
their means of production and their cinematic display. The train and the mass- 
produced stockings, like cinema, invite the viewer aboard to enjoy the "position of an 
expert." 




Figure 5-2. The pave setting. 
In Prix de Beaute, Lucienne (now "Miss France") receives a "good luck" gift from 
an anonymous admirer as she prepares for the "Miss Europe" contest. A deliveryman 
brings her a bouquet of roses and an oblong box which she opens to reveal the art deco 



140 
bracelet shown above. The bracelet attains natrative significance as the second piece of 
jewelry bought for Lucienne in the movie. Moments before Lucienne departs fot her 
whirlwind publicity tour, her fiance Andre confides to a friend that he has bought 
Lucienne an engagement ring. He plans to present the ring later that afternoon at the 
cafe. She doesn't make it to the cafe, of course, and Andre bears the humiliation of 
reading about her whereabouts in the afternoon paper. Instead of receiving the 
engagement ring from Andre, Lucienne receives the bracelet from an unknown Prince. 
In terms of both langue and parole, the engagement ring contrasts dramatically 
with the bracelet. Langue refers to the objects' status as culturally-coded signifiers. 
Traditionally, the gift of a ring signifies a public acknowledgement of commitment, 
whereas a bracelet remains a more ambiguous gift, less "serious" in significance. The 
particular bracelet Lucienne receives manifests an art-deco design, a design that 
signified fashionability and urbanity in 1930. The ring speaks of tradition, whereas the 
deco bracelet marks the "forward-thinking" woman Lucienne attempts to become. The 
objects' parole (the individual context of each gift) reinforces the cultural significance of 
the engagement ring, and attaches a potentially ominous meaning to the bracelet. The 
ring, bought by Lucienne's working-class fiance who plans a surprise proposal, 
contrasts sharply with the anonymously-given, flashy deco bracelet. The bracelet, 
presented with flowers to Lucienne in her dressing room, recalls the scene of the 
"showgirl gift" that appears in many movies of the Twenties and Thirties - an 
anonymous admirer sends a gift backstage in hopes of meeting and wooing the 
performer. Whether the admirer offers love and marriage or simply "a good time," he 






141 
generally expects something in return for his gift. The provincial Lucienne remains naive 

to the rules of this exchange. 

Whereas rings have remained a staple of women's adornment for centuries (first 
used in wedding ceremonies by the ancient Egyptians), the bracelet tends to appear and 
recede with the fickle cycle of fashion. After disappearing for a while in the 19th 
century (due to changing sleeve designs), the bracelet made a comeback in the 1920s 
and 30s. The sleek, sleeveless evening gowns that dominated high fashion demanded 
strong accessories for the bare arm. Design historian Melissa Gabardi writes that, "In 
the 1930s, bracelets in platinum and brilliants were all the rage." Generally, these 
designs "were structurally geometrical, usually in platinum or grey gold. They were 
sumptuously covered With pave set diamonds laid out in symmetrical lines, separated by 
very delicate divisions, always in precious white metal" (Gabardi 133). The bracelet 
Lucienne receives typifies this trend in modern design, complementing her Jean Patou 
fashions. 

True to the Modernist agenda, Patou stressed the importance of integrating 
jewelry design and dress design. Working with designer Georges Fouquet, Patou's 
collection of 1927 featured his clothing designs complemented by Fouquet's art deco 
jewelry. Fouquet recalled their like-mindedness, explaining their shared belief that "it 
is not enough that the piece should be pretty in itself, seen in isolation; it must also be 
in harmony with the setting in which it is called upon to live" (Gabardi 30). And 
indeed, the smooth, streamlined bracelet that complements Lucienne's sleek evening 
gown harmonizes equally with the cosmopolitan and urbane setting of the beauty 



142 
contest that initiates Lucienne into high society. The bracelet's pave setting, 

(appropriated from the French pave, to pave) refers to the closely set and smoothly 

aligned diamonds that conceal their metal foundation. This emphasis on surface 

homogeneity pervades the international beauty contest. 

In many ways, the entire "Miss Europe" contest is itself a pave setting— each 
contestant displays a carefully-constructed surface appearance that conceals her origin, 
even as that very distinction enables her appearance in the contest. Miss France, Miss 
England, and Miss Spain, despite the significance of their national origin, appear 
interchangable. Clothed in the same simple malliot, displaying the same closely- 
bobbed hairstyle, they are significantly more similar than different. The international 
beauty contest is enabled by the "international style," as the women's national 
differences can be celebrated only after they have been effaced. 

The pave bracelet and international beauty contest share narrative cinema's 
foundation in streamlined continuity, as the design of each simulates homogeneity and 
represses difference. Discussing the cinematographic apparatus, Jean-Louis Baudry 
speaks of "difference denied": "The meaning effect produced does not depend only on 
the content of the images but also on the material procedures by which an illusion of 
continuity, dependent on persistence of vision, is restored from discontinuous elements" 
(Baudry 349). This definition of the apparatus undergirds Mary Anne Doane's reading 
of Prix de Beaute (discussed in Chapter 3), as she argues that the film treats individual 
women the same way the apparatus treats individual frames. It denies the individuality 
of women, and instead constructs an idealized image of Woman, evident in the murder 



143 
of Lucienne (the individual) and the prolonged life of her cinematic image (the idealized 

Woman) that marks the final scene. 

Yet Lucienne was singled out from the other women in the contest, just as I 
singled out the still of the deco bracelet for my analysis— in these cases the "meaning 
effect" depends on the breakdown of continuity. Lucienne's selection as "Miss Europe" 
mirrors the workings of the "star system" whereby certain performers capture the 
public's imagination through a certain indefinable "charisma." Richard Dyer writes 
that "charismatic appeal is effective especially when the social order is uncertain, 
unstable and ambiguous and when the charismatic figure or group offers a value, order 
or stability to counterpoise this" (Dyer 58). Thus the star represents a sort of "return of 
the repressed," an embodiment of contradictions in the social order. Likewise, my 
magnification of the still containing the bracelet recalls the contradiction inherent in 
continuity editing: "difference is necessary for it to live, but it lives on its negation" 
(Baudry 349). By focusing on this one image, and allowing its significance to exceed its 
narrative purpose, I point to cinema's material foundation. Continuity editing, like the 
pave setting, directs the viewer's attention away from the attractions of individual 
details, concealing its material base, and foregrounding the surface illusion of 
rationality. 

In contrast, the "window-shopping" mode of spectatorship accommodates the 
irrational, discontinuous, and sensual pleasures of cinema that exceed narrative purpose. 
Baudry writes that "We should remember. . . the disturbing effects which result during 
a projection from breakdowns in the recreation of movement, when the spectator is 



144 
brought abruptly back to discontinuity— that is, to the body, to the technical apparatus 
which he had forgotten" (Baudry 349). Yet, as my study attempts to demonstrate, 
perhaps the body is less "forgotten" by the cinematic spectator than by the film 
theorist. 




Figure 5-3. (Still)life With Telephone. 
Illicit, the 1930 production starring Barbara Stanwyck as Ann, a hopelessly 
"modern" woman, opens with this shot— a bizarre, yet appropriate, establishing shot for 
the movie. Rather than zoom-in with a shot of the city, the apartment building, or the 
boudoir, the film opens with this shot displaying a telephone off the hook. We might 
label this frame "(Still)life with telephone," as the artfully arranged accessories 



145 
(telephone, high-heeled pumps, and cloche) mimic the traditional composition of a still- 
life painting. And in fact, the "stillness" of this shot becomes readily apparent— a 
couple has taken the telephone off the hook to enable a moment of respite from the 
demands of society. 

Anxiety over the telephone's increasing importance in Americans' daily lives was 
adroitly exploited by Hollywood— movies of the Twenties and Thirties frequently 
emphasized the switchboard operator's role in inciting narrative dilemmas, while 
Forties' film noir exploited the darker side of the telephone in such movies as Sorry, 
Wrong Number (1948) and Call Northside 777 (1947). Popular anxiety over the 
telephone's capacity to curtail leisure was captured by an American sociologist's 1929 
lamentation that, "We are largely at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for 
getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the 
telephone. . . our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of 
interruptions. . ." (Fischer 225). The telephone's potential for interruption formed the 
entire premise of 1933's I've Got Your Number, which opens with a clumsy montage that 
might be titled "Homage to the Telephone"-a shareholder sells his plummeting stocks 
just in time, a father learns his child has been in an accident but is safe at the hospital, a 
prisoner is granted a stay of execution, and so forth. An inevitable narrative catalyst, 
the telephone becomes indispensible to Hollywood narrative-hence the significance of 
Illicit 's "establishing shot." 

The disabled telephone functions metaphorically to establish the illicit nature of 
the couple's relationship. "Off the hook" signifies freedom from authority and the 



146 
evasion of consequences— precisely the goals that characterize Ann's modern ideas about 
love and marriage. The illicit nature of their affair is somewhat unusual: though 
unmarried, they maintain an intimate relationship— she, happily, and he, unhappily. 
Reversing the typical gender roles, he wants desperately to marry her, but she holds 
strong to her "theories" that "marriage is disastrous to love." In Chapter 3, 1 discussed 
the narrative pattern evident in many Hollywood movies of the 1920s and 30s that 
contain the threat posed by the New Woman by "marrying her off," and Illicit is no 
exception. The plot is predictable enough: Ann's "modern" ideas about love and 
marriage inevitably backfire on her, and by the end of the movie, her "natural" 
femininity is restored and she assumes her place as a selfless caregiver and homemaker. 

The narrative denouement thereby negates the establishing shot's emphasis on 
freedom, leisure, and sensual indulgence, in favor of commitment, purpose, and self- 
discipline. Yet like so many moralistic Hollywood tales, the bulk of the movie indulges 
the viewer with the scandalous details of the "illicit" relationship, only to censure it in 
the last few minutes— in effect, restoring the telephone to its functional position and 
enabling the voice of convention (both narrative and societal) to interrupt with the final 
word. 

But consider the cinematic potentials of leaving the telephone off the hook for 
the entire movie— precisely the possibility that Jean Epstein imagines in his manifesto of 
photogenie. He writes that, within cinema, true drama occurs not with a narrative event, 
but "in the curtain at the window and the handle of the door." Cinema achieves its 
fullest effect by focusing our attention on everyday objects, rendering them strange and 



147 
over-ripe with poetic possibilities. He describes the cinema's magical metamorphosis of 
the furnishings within a room: "The carpet emits venomous arabesques and the arms 
of the chair tremble. . . . One sees nothing as yet, but the tragic crystal which will 
create the nucleus of the drama has begun to form somewhere. Its ripples spread. 
Concentric circles. It advances stage by stage. . ." (Epstein 242). And indeed, the 
objects within the still from Illicit are alive with possibility. The cord of the inoperative 
telephone trails around the discarded shoes and hat, displacing the capacity for 
communication, for human contact, onto the accessories. Is it mere coincidence that 
the hat is a cloche ("bell" in French) named for its shape, but perhaps also for its 
potential to communicate. The shoes, the cloche, the disabled telephone embody the 
stolen moment of sexual pleasure— no need for dialogue or explanation. 

And then suddenly, Epstein writes, "The telephone rings. All is lost." The 
ringing telephone, of course, interrupts our leisurely contemplation of the room's decor 
and introduces the voice of narrative discipline. Fortuitously, Epstein describes the 
constraints of this narrative interjection in precisely the terms that characterize Illicit: 
"Well now, do you really want so much to know if they get married in the end? 
Because no films end unhappily, and bliss descends at the appointed hour in the 
program" (Epstein 242). Epstein's words remind us that the opening shot of Illicit 
teases the viewer with two forbidden attractions: first, the plausibility of female 
sexuality outside the sanctity of marriage, and second, the possibility of cinematic 
pleasure outside the sanctity of narrative convention. 



148 




Figure 5-4. Flesh, the Devil, and Objects of Desire 
I have discussed how a tension between positivism and metaphysics underlies 
Classical Hollywood Cinema. Positivism materializes in the Taylorist, factory-modeled 
studio system, which aims to efficiently produce narratives; metaphysics manifests itself 
in the unpredictable, fetishistic mise-en-scene, which interferes with "rational" exchange. 
The narrative of 1927s Flesh and the Devil stages this meeting of masculine rationality 
and feminine desire, depicting the unadulterated evils of luxury, sexuality, and 
consumption. Yet certain visual distractions complicate the moralistic narrative and 
render any straightforward allegorical reading inadequate. Kristin Thompson's "The 
Concept of Cinematic Excess" prompts a reading based on attention to scenes whose 
richness of mise-en-scene exceeds any apparent narrative demands. Echoing Roland 
Barthes, Thompson writes, "excess arises from the conflict between the materiality of a 
film and the unifying structures within it" (132). No matter how efficient a Hollywood 



149 
narrative may be, the very materiality of cinema enables these moments of excess to 
stall it, enabling a visual "return of the repressed." 

Flesh and the Devil chronicles the excesses of Felicitas (Greta Garbo), whose 
insatiable desires lead her to destroy the friendship between Leo and Ulrich, the two 
men she loves. As the film ends, Felicitas attempts to redeem herself by saving Leo and 
Ulrich, whereupon she falls into the ice, melting, "wicked witch-fashion." The 
narrative punishes her with death for her indulgences. She cast a spell on those who 
dared to come near, filling them with evil and insatiable desires, and only with her 
death can they resume their honorable and pure lives. After her death, Ulrich declares, 
"Everything is suddenly clear to me ... as if a veil has been lifted," and the two friends 
embrace. Yet scenes of visual excess complicate this allegorical reading, exposing 
contradictions and hypocrisies in the narrative. Even as the narrative denounces 
sexuality, the camera's attention to the scenes of seduction glorifies eroticism, indulging 
both the characters and the viewers in scenarios of luxury and consumption. The visual 
excess exposes the gaps between traditional continuity editing (which represses the 
signifier) and the materiality of cinema (which enables the signifier's proliferation). As 
Thompson writes, "Our conclusion must be that, just as every film contains a struggle 
of unifying and disunifying structures, so every stylistic element may serve at once to 
contribute to the narrative and to distract our perception from it" (134). The still that 
depicts the smoking pastor represents one such distraction. 

Narratively, the scene that contains the still functions unambiguously: Leo has 
unburdened himself before the Pastor, seeking his counsel. The Pastor urges him to 



150 
forget both his unfaithful lover Felicitas and his betraying friend Ulrich. The Pastor, 

who has been looming in the background, approaches Leo: "I know how much you 
care for him, Leo . . . but you are right . . . you must give up his friendship." The 
Pastor gives Leo a knowing, threatening grimace. Leo returns a look of uneasiness and 
fear, until he slowly bows his head and walks to the window, where he watches 
Felicitas. The Pastor turns his back to Leo and lights a cigar, held in an ornate device. 
"My boy, when the devil cannot reach us through the spirit ... he creates a woman 
beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh." The Pastor obviously functions as the 
"voice of truth" within the narrative, keeping his flock from going astray. He warns 
Leo about the harm Felicitas will bring and urges him to forget her. Yet his most overt 
pronouncement of Felicitas's evil nature occurs while he stands with his back to Leo 
and lights the cigar held in a bizarre, decorative device. Upon a closer inspection, the 
device appears to depict a reclining woman with her legs slightly parted. 

Why would our "voice of truth and reason" bestow so much attention onto an 
openly licentious object? Bataille offers an explanation: "The hatred of expenditure is 
the raison d'etre and the justification for the bourgeoisie; it is at the same time the 
principle of its horrifying hypocrisy" (Wollen 27). Indeed, the Pastor, spouting the 
words of reason and restraint, affirms hedonistic consumerism as he desirously lights 
the cigar. In his hypocrisy, he controls the demonized realm by reducing it to an object 
he can possess. He becomes the commodity-fetishist, condensing all the threatening 
facets of the Other (feminine, Orient) and displacing them onto one object of pleasure. 
The Pastor preaches Puritanism and austerity — in short, repression — yet his immodest 



151 
object of desire indicates the return of the repressed. Throughout the film (even at the 

pulpit) the Pastor smothers his desires with alcohol, and his eyes often display the dull 

glaze of a somnambulist. The "voice of reason" is in fact the walking dead, animated 

only in moments of obsessive hypocrisy. 




Figure 5-5. Ad(dressing) the Other 
This dress marks the European debut of the savage Alwina (Josephine Baker) in 
Princesse Tarn Tarn, the French production of 1935. The film emerges within the 
"cinema colonial" of 1930s France, a cinema "structured according to a contrast 
between the representation of a modern metropolitan France and that of a 'primitive' 
Africa or Orient" (O'Brien 207). These films typically present variations of Said's 
"Orientalism," ultimately representing the "Other" as an undifferentiated primitive or 
savage world that foils the modern, civilized West. Set in Tunisia (then a French 
colony), Princesse Tarn Tarn tells of an affluent French writer, who, stricken with writer's 



152 
block, goes to live among the savages of Africa where he hopes to find creative 
inspiration. What he finds, of course, is Josephine Baker as the wild and childish 
bedouin, Alwina. Max (the writer) devises a plan whereby he will convince Alwina he 
loves her, attempt to civilize her, then record her reactions which will form the basis of 
his new novel. The movie thus re-enacts the colonialist gesture canonized in 1933's 
King Kong: the adventurous Westerner travels abroad, discovers an exotic spectacle, 
captures it, brings it home, and exploits it. 

Though the film clearly opposes the uncultured Alwina with idealized Western 
women and capitalizes on the comedic possibilities of a "savage" in Paris high society, 
her characterization remains ambiguous. She represents a stereotype, to be sure, but a 
stereotype in Homi Babha's sense -- a "complex, ambivalent, contradictory mode of 
representation, as anxious as it is assertive" (O'Brien 222). Both narratively and 
visually, Alwina's "creation" is problematic. Unlike many other colonial films, Princesse 
Tarn Tarn doesn't unilaterally inscribe the North African as the primitive savage, 
deserving of French domination. In fact, the film serves as a metadiscourse that 
critiques the colonialist gesture, exposing the cruelty and folly of Max, Alwina's 
"Pygmalion." 

The creation of Alwina parallels the creation of Josephine Baker, herself. 
Baker's biographer cites the consistent theme of rebirth and transformation that runs 
throughout her shows and films: "In her films, she is an unsophisticated 'native' who 
becomes a glamorous creature of the city. In her nightclub acts, she emerges from an 
egg or appears as a fledgling creature with wings. To put it another way, her glamour 



153 
is concealed inside her humble, unpolished, and invariably colonial shell" (Rose 163). 

Furthermore, the racist climate of the 1920s and 30s produced an audience that 
"[could} not accept the ravishing black creature without a reminder of the pickaninny 
she started from" (Rose 163). The repetition of this creation narrative seemed to 
reassure audiences of Baker's legitimacy. Her star persona, like her dancing, had no 
precedent - her constant framing within a rags-to-riches Pygmalion narrative seemed 
to justify her presence and dilute her raw, unashamed sexuality by displacing agency 
onto her creator. 

This tension between creator and created surfaces in the decor and costumes of 
Princesse Tarn Tarn. The bold, black and white dress shown in the still marks Alwina's 
first Western attire, the culmination of a montage sequence in which Alwina gets a 
manicure, tries on clothes, learns scales on the piano, takes dance lessons and practices 
her multiplication tables. The montage sequence closes with a quick shot of a swinging 
door, through which Alwina emerges, clad in the black and white dress. Upon careful 
inspection, one sees on the door the painted image of a smoking monkey. As the door 
swings open, Alwina replaces the image of the monkey. The metaphor is clear: 
Alwina has become Max's "smoking monkey," a comical animal accessorized for the 
white man's amusement. 

The stiff, black and white gown and wrap that Alwina wears for her European 
debut uncannily resembles a house plan designed for Josephine Baker eight years 
earlier by Adolf Loos. Both the house and the dress express an angular severity 
distinguished by boldly contrasting black and white stripes. Each design marks a white 



154 
man's attempt to tempet the chaotic energy of Josephine Baket . The dress, like the 
house, represents a microcosm of Modernist "primitivism" - like Picasso's cubist 
appropriations of African masks, the graphic design submits the Other to an aesthetic 
regime of calculated rationality. But according to her biographers, there was nothing 
calculated or predictable about Josephine Baker, and her tastes were as wide-ranging 
and chaotic as her dancing. Baker rejected Loos's design and chose instead a sprawling 
stone chateau complete with dormers and turrets, which she decorated in a manner 
that would have undoubtedly horrified Loos: 

It had goldfish and lily ponds, a long gravel driveway, statues of Greek 
maidens in formal gardens, old oak trees, high gates, and "Josephine 
Baker" spelled out in red and yellow coleus plants across the terrace. 
Inside, the place was a hodgepodge of styles that took Baker's fancy: a 
Louis XVI room with lots of gilt, an East Indian room with temple bells, 
a chrome and baby blue office. (Rose 153) 

Baker's rejection of the streamlined Loos design in favor of the "chaotic-exotic" chateau 
recalls Pierre Bordieu's observation that "Whereas the ideology of charisma regards 
taste in legitimate culture as a gift of nature, scientific observation shows that cultural 
needs are the product of upbringing and education" (Bordieu 1). Despite Loos's 
modernist agenda to banish ornament and reveal a pure, universal architecture, his 
designs remain culturally coded. One must be trained to appreciate the stark designs 
and clean lines of modernism, just as Alwina must be trained to impersonate Western 
glamour and femininity. 

In Princesse Tarn Tarn, as in Baker's private life, the chaotic-exotic wins out over 
modernist decorum. As the movie ends, we realize that the entire narrative has been a 
recounting of Max's novel. They have remained in Tunisia the whole time, imagining 



155 
Alwina's European debut. The final scene of the movie shows Alwina, back in Tunisia, 
living and working happily in the refined and luxurious home given to her by Max. 
Max has returned to his life in Paris and Alwina has wed her childhood sweetheart. She 
stands in the parlor barefoot, washing clothes, while birds bathe in the indoor reflecting 
pond, monkeys play on the bookshelves, and a donkey eats a book. The final shot 
reveals the title of the book: Civilization. 




Figure 5-6. From the Long Chase to the Chaise Longue 
I take my caption from the title of a "tell all" memoir about the Hollywood 
movie industry published in 1953. The book's author, Arthur Mayer, worked in New 
York as an employee of Samuel Goldwyn for thirty years and his book Merely Colossal: 
The Story of the Movies from the Long Chase to the Chaise Longue chronicles the excesses and 
eccentricities of Hollywood's "business" side. The clever pun in the title of his book 
pinpoints popular cinema's transformation from the basic narrative vehicle of the "chase 



156 
film" to the glamorous spectacle of Hollywood in its heyday. Significantly, the "long 
chase" refers to a narrative event, whereas the "chaise longue" refers to an object of the 
mise-en-scene. As Robert Ray has written, classical Hollywood's box office success relied 
more on the largely unpredictable nature of spectators' visual fetishes than it did on 
formulaic narratives. Photogenie, the Impressionist concept that never really affected 
film theory, lay at the core of Hollywood's success. "What film theory discredited," 
Ray writes, "Hollywood skillfully employed" (70). The image of Greta Garbo on the 
chaise-longue comes from 1929's The Single Standard, a movie that epitomizes 
Hollywood's skillful employment of photogenie . 

Thoroughly mediocre in narrative, The Single Standard attests to the power of 
visual style and surface glamour in captivating an audience, demonstrating how 
"Thalberg achieved, however intuitively, what the Impressionist theoreticians did not: 
a formula tor photogenie" (Ray 69). The secret formula, in this case, involved a 
talismanic triumvirate: Greta Garbo (star), Adrian (costume designer), and Cedric 
Gibbons (art director). The plot is typical and forgettable: a free-spirited, rebellious 
young socialite has an affair with an artist. But when the young socialite is Greta 
Garbo, who wears Adrian's fashions in her art moderne home, the results are memorable 
indeed. Garbo's posture, face, and persona merge perfectly with the smooth, dramatic 
graphics of her silk pajamas and chaise longue. This visual convergence transforms a 
story about a restless socialite into the essence of decadent ennui. 

In his musings on "The Face of Garbo," Roland Barthes isolates what might be 
the central paradox of classical Hollywood cinema: its ability to intimate the 



157 
metaphysical by heightening the physical. "Garbo offered to one's gaze a sort of 
Platonic Idea of the human creature," writes Barthes. "The name given to her, the 
Divine, probably aimed to convey less a superlative state of beauty than the essence of 
her corporeal person, descended from a heaven where all things are formed and 
perfected in the clearest light" {Mythologies 56-57). The chaise longue aptly suits Garbo 
-- a divan for the Divine. The divan, "a large couch or sofa usually without back or 
arms often designed for use as a bed," derives from a Persian term signifying a council 
chamber for the aristocracy of the Empire, derivative of the Latin divus, "of, relating to, 
or proceeding directly from God or a God." The chaise-longue, then, enthrones the 
divine right of the Hollywood star. 

Yet Garbo's throne is not any chaise-longue, but a particularly modern one that 
contrasts sharply with its 19th century manifestations, the ruffled, overstuffed 
Victorian "fainting couch" or the exotic, fringed, and feathered art nouveau model. 
Garbo's divan was designed by Cedric Gibbons, MGM's art director for over thirty 
years. As Donald Albrecht writes, Gibbons considered himself on equal footing with 
the pioneers of modern architecture. "Writing about set design. . . , Gibbons urged 
that movie decor move beyond the commercial framework of the modern cinema: 'If 
realism can be abandoned," he stated, 'we may look for a setting which in itself wUl be 
as completely modern as is modern painting or sculpture'" (Albrecht 90). Gibbons 
understood the camera's love of clean lines, stark contrasts, and grandiose scale, and he 
knew how to appropriate modernist design for commercial ends. Albrecht addresses 
this contrast: "Modern film decor no longer had a mission to convince the public of 



158 
modernism's value. Instead, the focus was primarily on the visual and connotative 
aspects of modern design" (56). Gibbons collaborated with fashion designer Adrian to 
coordinate Garbo's clothes with the interior design, both connoting the cold, dramatic, 
otherworldly essence of Garbo. 

This emphasis on essence and divine clarity has its counterpart in the Modernist 
designs of Le Corbusier, whose classic Chaise Longue was exhibited at the 1929 Salon 
d'Automne exhibition in Paris. Four years earlier Corbusier published L' Art Decoratif 
d'Aujourd'hui, a treatise in which he argued that interior design, like architecture, 
should reflect the "objective rationality" of "universal human experience" (Julier 1 16). 
As Mark Wigley writes, Corbusier's notion of "objectivity" and "eternal truth" defined 
itself as fashion's antithesis. Le Corbusier aimed to strip design of its "secondary," 
culturally-coded qualities, reducing it to a pure, "primary" universality. Part of this 
agenda involved demonizing the "feminine" realm of fashion, which the modernists 
typically perceived as ornamental, superfluous, transient, and ephemeral. Yet Wigley 
argues that modernist design, far from effacing sexuality, merely displaced it. "If the 
modernists' 'stripping' off of decorative clothes is a moral act, the morality is sexual. 
The disciplining of fashion is, in the end, an attempt to discipline, as distinct from 
reject, sexuality" (198). As I argued in Chapter 2, far from eliminating the 
metaphysical and erotic excesses of the "chaotic-exotic," modern design merely stylizes 
it, submitting it to an aesthetic regime. 



159 
This displacement of sexuality proves particularly relevant to Hollywood's use 

of the chaise longue. Albrecht discusses how the chaise-longue functions as a metonym 

of the bed, signifying feminine sexuality and passing the censors. 

A heroine's sexual allure could be suggested by placing her on a daybed - 
- a popular item of decor of the period - chaise longue, or sofa, furniture 
that allowed her to assume a reclining position for reading, telephoning, 
smoking, or just lounging in elegant pajamas like the world-weary 
Garbo in The Single Standard or Jean Harlow, swathed in white, in 
George Cukor's Dinner at Eight. (115) 

Certainly, Garbo's chaise and Harlow's daybed obliquely signify their sexuality, yet 

consider the different connotations of each design. In The Single Standard, Garbo's two 

distinguishing characteristics - her unbridled sexuality and her detached ennui - unite 

in the modern chaise-longue with its dramatic contrasts of color, and clean, functional 

lines. Unlike the forever-supine Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight, surrounded in feathers 

and fluffy pillows, Garbo's character remains serious, active, in control-exciting for her 

affront to traditional notions of femininity. Harlow, on the other hand, remains a 

comedic figure, parodying the excesses of femininity, from her childish voice, to her 

filmy negliges, to her appetite for bon-bons. On the level of denotation, Garbo's chaise 

and Harlow's daybed signify similarly. The two diverge, however, in that murky realm 

of connotation where the particular utterance of each object gains meaning through its 

context — both within the narrative, within the culture at large, and within the desires 

of individual spectators. 

The spectator understands this connotative level unconsciously, and perhaps 

intuitively, absorbing and understanding the cinematic habitat without intellectual 

reflection. "Reception in a state of distraction," writes Benjamin, "which is increasing 



160 
noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, 

finds in the film its true means of exercise" ("Work of Art" 749). In fact, to exemplify 

his theory of mass culture-as-distraction, Benjamin cites architecture, a cultural form 

that the distracted masses absorb unconsciously, habitually. "The distracted person, 

too, can form habits," he writes, suggesting the distraction's potential to help the 

masses smoothly negotiate the transformations of modern, everyday life. 

Benjamin's use of architecture proves compelling for my examination of The 

Single Standard. Our first glimpse of Garbo shows her on the veranda of a modular, 

geometric house — the shot could pass for a cubist painting with a tiny cutout of Garbo 

glued on — clearly establishing her "natural" milieu. The house uncannily resembles 

architect and furniture-maker Gerrit Rietveld's 1923 Schroder-Schrader House in 

Utrecht, "an archetype for a style employed during subsequent years in both building 

and set design" (Albrecht 3). In fact, the set designs (with Garbo as the vital "prop") of 

The Single Standard function precisely as Benjamin describes architecture, signifying in a 

tactile, non-intellectual, perhaps even metaphysical manner. This notion of a tactile, 

non-intellectual mode of perception and understanding illuminates that aspect of 

cinema so seldom addressed by film critics and theorists, but so often practiced by 

spectators. More akin to photogenie than semiology, Benjamin's theory of cinema 

anticipates Barthes' later work on photography, reminding us that semiology is 

"necessary but not sufficient" for theorizing the logic of cinematic imagery (Mythologies 

112). 



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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 



Tracy Cox got her Bachelor's Degree in English at the University of West 
Florida. She got her Master's and Doctorate from the University of Florida. 



168 



I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope 
and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 




Rooert Ray, Chair 
Professor of English 

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acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope 
and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 



Nora Alte/ ""/ 
Associate Professor of Germanic 
And Slavic Studies 

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acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope 
and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 



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acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope 
and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 




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acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope 
and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 




O/i 



Gregory Kilmer 
Professor of English 




This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Department of 
English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and to the Graduate School 
and was accepted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of 
Doctor of Philosophy. 



May 2000 Dean, Graduate School 



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